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Did reality just bite the Vikings against the Chicago Bears?

The Vikings dropped back to .500 with their loss to the Bears; did we just see the Josh Dobbs that made him a backup?

MINNEAPOLIS — There are lots of teams around the NFL who are playing without their starting quarterbacks this year. In most cases, it has been messy, even with the teams who are still competing for the playoffs.

For example, the Indianapolis Colts had a three-game losing streak and three-game winning streak with Gardner Minshew under center. The Cleveland Browns beat the 49ers with PJ Walker at quarterback and lost by two scores to Denver with Dorian Thompson-Robinson guiding the ship.

So maybe we should have expected that the Minnesota Vikings would hit some choppy waters while turning to Josh Dobbs — that the magic carpet ride where he barely knew the offense and scrambled around and scored brilliant touchdowns would be difficult to sustain. But even the most skeptical observer of the Vikings since Kirk Cousins went down and Dobbs took over would not have expected the total collapse that took place at US Bank Stadium on Monday night.

When the dust settled on the Vikings’ 12-10 loss, Dobbs finished 22-for-32 with 185 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions. He was sacked twice, committed an intentional grounding in the red zone and nearly had several other passes picked off. As a result, the offense never found its rhythm, failed to sustain drives until late in the fourth quarter and Dobbs did not have the trust to be aggressive when the Vikings had a chance to close out the game.

Things got so bad as they trailed Chicago’s sputtering offense all day that head coach Kevin O’Connell implied after the game that he considered benching Dobbs.

“It started to get to the point where I was just trying to think almost what would give us a spark,” O’Connell said. “We got the sudden change on that turnover and then Josh took us down the field for a touchdown. As much as the turnovers absolutely cripple you offensively, I still thought Josh battled. No flinch. Just kept playing and competing to try to help us win. I really credit him that. It's tough to do on a night where you've turned the football over with some interceptions here and there just to keep playing. This guy is a competitor.”

In the locker room and at the podium following the game, everyone looked for explanations. TJ Hockenson and KJ Osborn could only manage to say that they needed to go back and look closer at the game to understand what happened. They could only say for sure that it needs to be better.

O’Connell offered a winding answer that reads like Dobbs’ lack of experience in the offense finally caught up with him.

“It just comes down to what is the rhythm of that ball coming out,” O’Connell said. “Does it need to come out with urgency right there. Does the pocket allow you to sit on your back foot and allow this receiver to get into that window with their eyes around for some potential yards after catch. All that goes into play when you're pushing it outside the numbers.”

There may be an argument that Dobbs was better suited to play with less complexity. There may be a case that the Bears and defensive-minded head coach Matt Eberflus had the perfect plan to contain Dobbs’ running ability. There may be reason to think that Justin Jefferson was really, really missed on a night like this. It may have been a combination of all those things.

The concerning plausible answer to what happened on Monday night is that Dobbs is a journeyman quarterback for a reason and his hot run to start his career in Minnesota was nothing more than a flicker of exciting play and not a player who could lead them into the postseason. Over the last two weeks the Vikings have gone from the driver’s seat in the playoff race with very good quarterback play to getting six turnovers from the veteran QB in the last two weeks and losing by a total of three points.

When O’Connell was asked about whether Dobbs was solidified as the quarterback coming out of the bye week when the Vikings travel to Las Vegas, the head coach did not commit to him as being QB1.

“We're going to take a look, really evaluate the inventory of plays now we have of Josh,” he said. “We got healthy, got Jaren back available to us, and Nick Mullens is available to us as well.”

While the Vikings provide a much better circumstance for Dobbs than his previous stops, it can’t be ignored in the equation that prior to joining the Vikings he was 1-9 as a starter with seven interceptions in those games and entered Monday’s game leading the NFL in fumbles.

Still Dobbs was hardly the only one who had a difficult night. Rookie Jordan Addison had a ball bounce off his helmet and turn into an interception and couldn’t bring in a deep pass with his feet in bounds late in the game. The Bears were also able to put nine QB hits on Dobbs and break up eight passes

“We've just got to continue to find way to make the quarterback as comfortable as possible, whether it is guys using their athleticism, or offensively just being that much better with our execution around the quarterback from protection to route detail to getting our head around out of cuts,” O’Connell said. “And then when we get opportunities, we got to make them and take advantage of some of the chances down the field when we take those shots. We just didn't do enough of it tonight.”

Then there is the discussion about the coaching. With a career backup QB being asked to guide the ship, every coaching decision is amplified when there is no room for error. With the score tied at 3-3 coming out of the half, the Vikings went for a fourth-and-7 at their own 49-yard line. They came up just short of the marker and the Bears only needed two first downs to put themselves in field goal position and take a 6-3 lead.

“We had gotten the three points to end the half, a chance to take control of the game even though we hadn't played well,” O’Connell said. “I thought it was worth the risk in that moment, giving our guys an opportunity to make play for our team, and we just came up a little short on the play. My trust in our defense has a lot to do with that decision in that moment.”

It’s worth noting that the Fourth Down Bot created by statistician Ben Baldwin called the decision a 50-50 toss up.

Later in the game, O’Connell cited his trust for his defense when deciding not to go for a fourth down that would have closed out the game. Again, the analytics machine had the choice of kicking a field goal, going for it and punting all about the same. It gave the Vikings a 65% chance to win with a punt or field goal and 64% going for it.

Both decisions came up snake eyes and Ryan Wright shanked the punt and gave the Bears the ball at the 22-yard line. These are the margins of error when the quarterback is struggling.

There is more to the equation. O’Connell played it safe on first and second down before the Vikings threw an unsuccessful screen play on third down. The head coach said they were looking for something down the field but had to check to the screen when the Bears took away the aggressive play.

When O’Connell was asked what plays he wanted back he talked about several calls that were overly aggressive in his mind, including a shot downfield to start the game and a play that resulted in a drive-killing intentional grounding call while Dobbs was being dragged to the ground.

“Yeah, there will definitely be a few when I watch it back that I'll want back,” O’Connell said. “I'm sure there are a few plays that all of our guys offensively on a night like this will want back. We have to be more consistent, call it the best possible way we can to do that as an offense. Get some sustained, efficient plays, and see if we can be efficient and explosive is what we try to be.”

It was like he could not decide whether he had pushed the gas pedal down too hard or not hard enough. The answer may be that there was no right answer when the Bears had a good gameplan that kept the quarterback in the pocket and he couldn’t get on the same page as receivers throughout the night.

Can coaching calls be criticized even if the explanation for the Dobbs return to earth is right there in front of us? Certainly. Everyone and everything on the offensive side played a role in the loss, which wasted a very strong defensive performance by Brian Flores’ unit. But the obvious answer is that the ball can’t end up in the opponent’s hands four times.

The question coming out of the game is whether there is any coaching adjustment — whether it’s sitting Dobbs or changing the offense around him to get the ball out quicker or use his legs more — can change the reality of QBs like Dobbs (or Nick Mullens, for that matter). After Monday night, quarterbacks who were not their team’s opening day starters (excluding Kyler Murray) have a record of 21-40. It was hard enough to win with Kirk Cousins and even harder to win consistently without him.

That doesn’t mean the season has to come crashing down, but the analytics site SumerSports estimates the Vikings have slightly less than a 50-50 chance to make the playoffs with a loss against Chicago. Suddenly the Packers and Rams are on their heels and games against the Raiders and Bengals appear less like gimmes when they can lose to the 3-8 Bears without allowing a touchdown.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do during the bye,” O’Connell said. "I do want these guys to get some time. It's been a grind, a stretch for them. They have continued to show up and play very, very hard. They prepare the right way. When they come back off this bye we'll make sure we got a great plan fore going to Vegas, and whatever that looks like, we'll be ready to go."

The whiplash of the 2023 season has taken us from viewing the season as over after Cousins went down in Green Bay to believing they could be a dangerous team following the win over the Saints, to walking out of US Bank Stadium with the season on the brink and uncertainty at quarterback down the stretch. We will find out when they return in Las Vegas if the Vikings simply had a no-good, rotten, miserable, frustrating night against Chicago and can still make a run at the playoffs with Jefferson back in the mix or if the reality of backup QBs was too strong for them to overcome after all.