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Did we expect too much of the Kirk Cousins-less Vikings offense?

The Vikings only produced three points in a win over the Raiders -- are there answers or is this the reality of playing backup QBs?

LAS VEGAS — When Josh Dobbs led the Minnesota Vikings to a 28-point first half by escaping and scrambling all over the US Bank Stadium field against the New Orleans Saints, you could have convinced even the most cynical Vikings fan that the next coming of Joe Kapp, Wade Wilson, Randall Cunningham or Case Keenum.

Why not, right? Vikings history is riddled with quarterbacks we didn’t expect to suddenly find life and lead the Vikings into the playoffs. But one month after that magical half against the Saints, Dobbs was benched following a 10-for-23 performance in which he was wildly inaccurate and held onto the ball until he was sacked over and over.

With back-to-back rough games for Dobbs, it appears possible — if not likely — that we do not see him starting in purple again. Nick Mullens was able to find enough success through the air to get the Vikings a game-winning field goal to beat the Raiders 3-0 and if they stick with Mullens and wheels fall off then the season is probably over and it will be time to let Jaren Hall get some reps.

As the many, many Vikings fans who made the trip walked out of the Raiders’ spaceship-looking palace on the Vegas Strip, the prevailing question was: How did it fall so far so fast?

Kevin O’Connell seemed shell shocked after the game, not knowing whether to talk about squeezing out a victory or try to explain what happened to the offense. He seemed hesitant to fully blame Dobbs because the Vikings dropped a stunning six passes but he also had to discuss why he benched Dobbs and nothing concrete really came out. The head coach did say that they attempted to gameplan to Dobbs’ running ability.

“We came in today with a plan to try to do some things to run the football and then have Josh [Joshua Dobbs] be a part of that, whether it be zone read or some design to what we wanted to get done, and then try to incorporate some past games things,” O’Connell said. “They got after us a little bit upfront, a couple of adjustments we didn't make when things were moving fast out there, giving some easy sacks. But you have to give them credit.”

Kirk Cousins

Kirk Cousins fires a pass against the 49ers.

It wasn’t clear immediately where exactly the play caller tried to work to Dobbs’ strengths. When asked about those adaptations, O’Connell focused on the rushing portion, saying that they ran the ball with Mattison more out of the shotgun knowing that the Raiders would have to factor for Dobbs’ speed. He also said that some of the play-action game was blown up (Dobbs completed three passes on nine play-action attempts).

“In the pass game, you’re trying to stay efficient and then work some of those plays where you can move him off the spot,” O’Connell said. “We utilized the keeper game on some plays, but in the end in this league, you do need to still drop back and throw the football, and especially to maximize a guy like Justin Jefferson coming back into our offense. We wanted to have some plays to do that. We still need to improve some of our play-pass protections. I thought there were some breakdowns, some simple breakdowns that contributed to some of our sack numbers.”

Protection was definitely an issue with Dobbs completing two passes on 15 pressured drop-backs — most of which the Raiders only sent four rushers.

Is there something that should have been done differently from a schematic perspective?

In a week where Jake Browning, Tommy DeVito, Zach Wilson and Joe Flacco won games, it’s pretty easy to wonder how those quarterbacks’ offensive coaches have rigged up enough schematically to get decent production and Dobbs has fallen off the face of the earth since the start of the second half in Denver.

Then again, a couple weeks ago Wilson got benched, DeVito threw for 86 yards in a 47-17 loss to the Cowboys, Browning produced 10 points against the Steelers and Flacco averaged 5.8 yards per attempt in a loss to the Rams.

Unless the guy can’t play at all, every team with a backup QB goes through the same roller coaster that the Vikings have with Dobbs.

We have to remember how long we have been watching Kirk Cousins. The two versions of Cousins were A) really good B) not great but somehow good enough to put up numbers and be down by one score in the fourth quarter. It rarely felt hopeless as long as Kenny Clark or Akiem Hicks weren’t crushing Cousins instantly. Even when there was the occasional deer-in-the-headlights look for a half, the Vikings rarely ran into something like gaining 16 net yards on 28 drop-backs, as Dobbs had on Sunday when Cousins was starting. Which, of course, is why Cousins makes so much money.

Those who watched Christian Ponder might have felt a familiar pang. On 12 occasions Ponder registered a quarterback rating below 60. Fourteen times Ponder had an adjusted net yards per attempt below 5.0 yards. In a loss to Seattle in 2012 he gained 63 yards on 22 attempts and was sacked four times.

Sometimes the explanation isn’t as complicated as we want to make it. The Atlanta and New Orleans games may have been similar to the time that Ponder dropped 381 yards and three touchdowns on the Broncos in December 2011. What makes an athlete great isn’t that they can have a single impressive outburst, rather it’s the ability to do it over and over and over.

It’s very possible that no matter what the Vikings did following Kirk Cousins’ injury that this was bound to be their fate at quarterback — a week to week roller coaster that has the capability of crashing and burning at any time rather than simply having ups and downs.

That means the final four games could go just about any direction. Would you be surprised if Browning struggled against Brian Flores’ defense, which has baffled inexperienced quarterbacks all year. Would you be stunned if Detroit’s defense lets Mullens go wild or Jordan Love throws three picks at US Bank Stadium? Would you be startled if the Vikings lost four straight because they couldn’t score?

It’s hard to make suggestions about what O’Connell should do with his offense. Run more? Well, Alexander Mattison came out of Sunday’s game with an ankle sprain. So does Brian O’Neill, one of their best run blockers. Both players’ statuses are uncertain.

The Vikings’ head coach did say that Jefferson has a “good chance” to return because all of his organs are apparently functioning following a nasty hit in the back on a high throw. Can he have the same type of impact if the quarterback isn’t capable of getting him the ball in the same way Cousins was? And will others continue to falter? KJ Osborn had multiple drops and Jordan Addison seems to have run into a rookie wall.

If this were a situation where the Vikings’ season ended in Vegas for all intents and purposes, we would all shrug our shoulders and move onto the offseason talk but the Vikings’ playoff odds shot up this weekend with Rams and Packers losses. So now the question turns from why the offense disappeared and produced 23 points in its last 10 quarters to how they can get enough of the magic back to reach the playoffs and have a chance to pull off a wild card upset.

O’Connell may need to shift his mentality from seeking an explosive offense led by downfield passing to something more 2000 Ravens-ish.

“If you’re able to not turn the ball over offensively, you give yourself a chance regardless of how messy it’s been on offense and the things you’re trying to overcome and trying to find the execution when you need it,” O’Connell said. “As long as you continue to battle the field position and not turn it over, you’re going to give yourself a chance to win a game.”

Now that the Vikings have seen every peak and valley, there is another level to the discussion about offensive expectations over the final four games: Will the results impact how the team feels about its future at quarterback? Amidst Dobbs Mania, it was fair to wonder if the Vikings’ decision makers would believe they could QB whisper their way to success and move on from Cousins. If they make the playoffs with the defense flying high, will they believe they are a Cousins return away from competing for a Super Bowl contender? If they miss the playoffs, will weaknesses be revealed along the way that push them toward a longer term approach?

Or maybe because of the nature of playing a No. 2, 3 or 4 quarterback, there shouldn’t be any over reaction to whatever happens next — from them and us. But it wouldn’t be football if that were possible.