Two Sundays ago, the singular life of Joshua Dobbs funneled to that singular moment. He had learned some of his teammates’ names and parts of the Vikings’ offense as he quarterbacked an NFL team to a four-point deficit with 2:08 remaining. Quarterbacks Coach Chris O’Hara grabbed a whiteboard he hadn’t previously known was kept on the sideline. He drew one deep cut using circles for wideouts, then erased it and drew another. Circles, erase. Circles, erase. Amid the bedlam of an NFL sideline, Dobbs downloaded chunks of Minnesota’s two-minute offense.
“I’ve never done that before,” O’Hara said.
In the moments that followed, Minnesota discovered a new folk hero. He was a quarterback who bounced between benches and practice squads for the first six years of his career. He was an aerospace engineering major who graduated from Tennessee with a 4.0 GPA and interned for NASA. He was a beloved teammate with the interpersonal skills to explain rockets to football players and football to rocket scientists.
Dobbs made his first career start in December at age 27, nine days after the Tennessee Titans signed him off the Detroit Lions’ practice squad. A two-game cameo with the Titans earned him a chance to begin this season as the starter in Arizona. The Vikings traded for him Oct. 31, two days after they lost franchise pillar Kirk Cousins to a season-ending Achilles’ tendon tear. Five days later, after Dobbs entered in the first quarter for injured rookie Jaren Hall and received a crunchtime sideline tutorial, he led an 11-play touchdown drive that delivered a victory his coaches and teammates would remember always.
Dobbs owns a distinction that required his blend of intellect, buoyancy and diligence: He is the second quarterback in NFL history to start for three different franchises in a calendar year and the first to do so with three weeks or less of preparation with each team.
“This has never happened in the history of the league,” Dobbs’s agent, Mike McCartney, said. “It’s not like you go to the library and say, ‘How do I handle this?’ He’s the one who’s writing the book.”
In Dobbs’s second start for the Vikings, a stunning notion emerged: The NFL’s brainiest and most iterant quarterback might also be a burgeoning star. Dobbs shredded the formidable New Orleans Saints’ defense in a 27-19 victory with athletic scrambles and pinpoint passes. He completed 23 of 34 attempts for 268 yards and a touchdown and ran eight times for 44 yards and another touchdown, a spinning, juking, leaping display that left Coach Kevin O’Connell slack-jawed on the sideline. Sunday night against the Denver Broncos, Dobbs will lead the seventh franchise he’s played for as the unquestioned starter of a playoff contender.
“I understood my journey might be a little unique,” Dobbs told reporters this week in Minnesota. “Each stop, each opportunity, my role has grown. I recognized that about a year ago around this time. I kind of accepted that was going to be my journey. Whatever opportunity was thrown my way, no matter how big or small, I was going to make the most of it.”
Learning an NFL game plan on the fly is an incomprehensible task, and Dobbs may be the one person on Earth perfectly suited for it. In Dobbs’s view, it requires problem-solving in real time, repeating processes and applying multiple principles across different situations. He is expert at that kind of thinking in two fields.
“There’s definitely some synergy,” Dobbs said. “Engineering and quarterback have a lot of crossover in the mental aspect.”
One thing Scott Colloredo does when he is not sending rockets into space is root for Tennessee football. Colloredo is the director of Kennedy Space Center engineering and a UT alum. In the mid-2010s, Dobbs astonished him from afar: The Volunteers quarterback who won SEC player of the year in 2017 also crushed one of the school’s most difficult majors.
“Anytime somebody has a 4.0 in aerospace engineering, it’s a big deal,” Colloredo said. “When they’re playing major college football, it’s even more of an amazing deal.”
In 2019, Colloredo contacted Dobbs on LinkedIn. Dobbs responded immediately, and their conversation led to an internship, supported by the NFL Players Association, in 2020.
Dobbs worked in what NASA labels the “instrumentation group” focused on “expiration ground systems” for the Artemis I mission, an uncrewed test flight that launched in November 2022. Dobbs’s group, Colloredo said, monitored launchpads by studying hazardous gases, flow rates, temperatures and structural defections. Simple terms: Dobbs helped make sure nothing went haywire on the launchpad. “We threw him right into the fire,” Colloredo said.
When Dobbs signed with the Cleveland Browns in 2022, NASA’s Glenn Research Center reached out to him. Dobbs volunteered in engagement and outreach, helping NASA reach a young, sports-obsessed audience. He also toured the center and “definitely geeked out on our testing facility,” Glenn communications director Kristen Parker said.
After Dobbs’s first Vikings start, Glenn Research Center made a social media post nicknaming Dobbs the “Passtronaut” that included a picture of Dobbs in full spacesuit. By the center’s accounting, the post reached 6.8 million people.
“He can bridge the gap between sports and aerospace engineering,” Parker said. “I have not met too many people who are good at explaining on a basic level the type of work we do here at NASA. But then to also be in the sports world, it’s a one-of-a-kind type of skill set. He could easily do either, and that’s crazy.”
The vernacular used at NASA often overwhelms newcomers. NASA’s engineers use distinct acronyms and lingo, “almost like a different language,” Colloredo said. When Dobbs’s bosses at Kennedy Space Center quizzed him after a few weeks, Dobbs nailed it. It struck Colloredo that learning the language of NASA might not be unlike absorbing multiple NFL playbooks.
“A major event in his world today is a football game, a major event with a lot of preparation, a lot of technical jargon, a lot of rehearsal,” Colloredo said. “When you’re eventually going to launch a rocket, you’re going through all these preparations to make sure your launch team is ready. That’s what we do: We practice, and then we get it right for the actual big test day or launch day. There’s a lot of similarities. It’s probably why he’s become so good at both areas. Now he’s showing the world what he’s good at.”
NASA officials have encouraged Dobbs to attempt astronaut training once his football career ends, Colloredo said, which could make Dobbs an overly imaginative first-grader’s worksheet sprung to life: When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut and a quarterback.
Dobbs is an overnight sensation years in the making. He entered the league in 2017, picked by the Steelers in the fourth round. He found himself buried on the depth chart with no chance of usurping superstar Ben Roethlisberger.
Dobbs quickly became one of Roethlisberger’s confidants, sitting next to him at every meeting. When the Steelers switched from paper playbooks to tablets, Roethlisberger asked Dobbs to show him how they worked. When Roethlisberger came off the field between drives on gamedays, the first person he talked to — before any coach — was Dobbs. “Did you see anything on this?” Roethlisberger would ask.
“I trusted he wasn’t going to just say what I wanted to hear,” Roethlisberger said this week in a phone conversation. “He was going to tell me what I saw. It’s invaluable to have a guy like that in your corner and behind you. He wanted to play, but he wasn’t trying to take my job.”
Dobbs appeared in five games in his first five seasons, missing the 2021 season after he suffered turf toe in the preseason. Still, Dobbs believed he could be a starter. He focused on improving his accuracy and refining footwork in the pocket. He received few practice reps during the season, but he took mental reps like he was a starter.
After the 2021 season, Dobbs recognized he needed to leave Pittsburgh, to play under a new staff that might view him as a potential starter. He chose to sign with Cleveland, with Deshaun Watson’s looming suspension a possible pathway to the field.
Dobbs became Jacoby Brissett’s backup, though, and when Watson’s 11-game suspension ended, the Browns waived Dobbs. He worked out for the Denver Broncos. The Detroit Lions showed interest. He chose Detroit for two reasons: he wanted to play for up-and-coming coordinator Ben Johnson, and the Lions didn’t have a backup quarterback signed for 2023. He joined the Lions’ practice squad on Dec. 5.
Thirteen days later, Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill suffered an injury that knocked him out for the season. McCartney, Dobbs’s agent, called interim Titans general manager Ryan Cowden, hopeful Tennessee wanted another quarterback option. While they spoke, Cowden pulled up Dobbs’s preseason film. By the end of the conversation, Cowden told McCartney, “I’m liking Dobbs.” McCartney texted the quarterback. When Dobbs told him he was in a meeting, McCartney told him he needed to leave — he was heading to Tennessee.
Dobbs drove to the Detroit airport and left his car in long-term parking, where it remained for several weeks. “The good thing is he had some clothes in his car,” McCartney said. “Because he had just gotten to Detroit.”
Nine days after he arrived in Nashville, Dobbs started an NFL game for the first time. The Titans lost both of Dobbs’s starts, including a heartbreaker against Jacksonville that would’ve sent them to the playoffs. His steady performance under unusual circumstances, though, gave the league a new perspective. Dobbs signed again with Cleveland. Two weeks before the season opener, the Browns traded him to the Cardinals. With Kyler Murray out and unproven choices behind him, the Cardinals made Dobbs their Week 1 starter.
Though the Cardinals began the season 1-7, Dobbs established himself as a viable NFL starter. He kept the Cardinals in games despite a porous defense. Only Lamar Jackson totaled more rushing yards than he did among quarterbacks.
After the Cardinals lost to the Ravens two days before the trade deadline, Coach Jonathan Gannon announced Dobbs would remain their starter. Earlier that day, Cousins tore his Achilles’. On Monday, Gannon called Dobbs into his office and informed him he had changed his mind: Rookie Clayton Tune would replace him.
Dobbs called McCartney and told him, “Hey, I just got benched.”
“Well, then you’re getting traded,” McCartney said.
“No, he told me I’m not,” Dobbs replied.
“You’re getting traded,” McCartney said. “Pack two weeks’ worth. Who knows? You could be going to Minnesota.”
Dobbs was stunned. He loved the organization, his place in Scottsdale and the chance to play. His furniture had just arrived. “I could tell he was stung,” McCartney said. “It gets old after a while.”
McCartney’s hunch proved prophetic. The Cardinals traded Dobbs to Minnesota for a fifth-round pick. Dobbs headed for the airport, two weeks of clothes in tow.
Dobbs arrived at the hotel where the Vikings house new players, a short walk from the team’s practice facility. “That part was good,” McCartney said. “Because he didn’t have a car.” He didn’t know what time he needed to be at work, so he played it safe: 5 a.m. alarm, arrive around 6. But he was still on Arizona time, so he tossed and turned when he tried going to bed early.
“He goes to work the next day like a zombie,” McCartney said. “I’m sure he was overwhelmed.”
Dobbs missed the first offensive meeting because he needed to take a physical. The Vikings’ palatial facility includes an offensive meeting room, a quarterback room and another room where quarterbacks convene without coaches. He at least knew O’Hara, who had coached him as a low-level assistant during Dobbs’s 2019 stint with the Jaguars. Dobbs texted O’Hara all week, “What room are we in?”
At practice, Vikings coaches prepared Hall for his first NFL start, against the Atlanta Falcons. Dobbs took only mental reps. He didn’t throw a pass to any of Minnesota’s starting wide receivers. By Friday, he had memorized the game plan cold.
On the second series, Hall suffered a possible concussion. In an instant, Dobbs went from emergency option to carrying Minnesota’s playoff hopes. His offensive linemen encircled him on the sideline so he could recite his cadence. He took snaps from center Garrett Bradbury for the first time.
On his third snap, Dobbs was tackled in the end zone for a safety. His next series ended when Falcons defensive end Arnold Ebiketie sacked him from behind and knocked away the ball, which the Falcons recovered and returned to the 1-yard line. When Dobbs began his third series, he trailed, 11-3, staring at a huddle of teammates he had barely met. He never flinched.
Dobbs relied on his athleticism and avoided mistakes. He rushed for 77 yards, didn’t throw an interception and kept the Vikings in it until the final drive, when Atlanta led, 28-24. Relying on the “deep cuts,” Dobbs marched 75 yards and finished with his second touchdown pass of the day. After seeking an opportunity for so long, his moment had come.
“He’s a good football player, and you’re seeing it,” Roethlisberger said. “I felt bad, because he kept going to bad football teams and never getting a chance. It’s fun that people are getting to see what we always saw.”
“I hope with his success,” Roethlisberger added, chuckling, “he still returns my text messages.”
So many people Dobbs has met over the years are reveling in his success. In 2016, at the end of Dobbs’s junior season, wildfires ravaged Gatlinburg, Tenn. One coach turned on the local news that night and saw a report about the star quarterback who had driven an hour to visit a shelter for victims. NFL locker rooms are filled with former teammates who adore Dobbs. Two NASA centers are packed with brilliant people who marvel at him.
“I can’t imagine there’s anybody that has a bad word to say about Josh,” Roethlisberger said. “Everyone always talks about the NASA, the smart guy, and obviously he was that. But more important, he was a great guy. He seemed to always care about everybody. He genuinely wanted to know how your day was. It’s like he never had a bad day.”
“We’re all big fans of Josh’s,” Parker, the Glenn communications director, said. “Our center director would like to hire him tomorrow if he could.”
“He was humble. He was down-to-earth,” Colloredo said. “He had every reason in the world to have a big ego, but he couldn’t have been nicer. There’s a lot of Josh Dobbs fans here, for a lot of reasons. … It is a big deal to us to see him doing what he’s doing and making nerds cool. We’re loving this.”
Last Sunday afternoon, before he played the best game of his life, Dobbs stood on the sideline as the Minnesota crowd performed its ritual. He looked around and saw a stadium of purple-clad fans clapping hands over their heads and screaming, “Skol!” in unison.
“Take this all in,” O’Hara told him. “You got all these people behind you today. Don’t do anything but just be yourself.”