Skip to main content

How Nick Mullens starting impacts the Vikings' playoff chances

The Vikings are making a QB change... will it help their odds of reaching the postseason?

EAGAN — In 1988 the Cleveland Browns had so many injuries that they turned to longtime Miami Dolphins backup Don Strock with the season on the line. In the final game of the year, Strock led the Browns to a comeback from down 23-7 against the Houston Oilers in a snowstorm to squeak into the playoffs. Strock became a Cleveland legend because he was their fourth quarterback that year. Bernie Kosar, Mike Pagel and Gary Danielson all got hurt.

“Despite it all, this Browns team displayed the courage and character to overcome adversity,” voiceover artist Jeff Kaye said in the 1988 Browns highlight reel produced by NFL films. “1988 was a season of great expectations shattered by some of the strangest events in the history of the Browns.”

The Minnesota Vikings’ present situation isn’t quite as crazy as the ‘88 Browns. After all, nothing (so far) has topped Pagel getting injured making a tackle on a blocked kick. The Vikings only reached three QBs because of injury. They are now onto their fourth quarterback because of performance.

After two strong games in wins over the Falcons and Saints, Josh Dobbs has completed under 60% of his passes with two touchdowns, five interceptions, nine sacks and only 53 rushing yards. As the Vikings were getting shutout in the fourth quarter against the Raiders, head coach Kevin O’Connell pulled the plug and put Nick Mullens into the game. In two drives, Mullens got the Vikings across the finish line with a game-winning drive to defeat the Raiders 3-0.

On Tuesday, O’Connell announced that Mullens will be starting as the Vikings take on the Cincinnati Bengals.

“There's a reason we went out and got Nick when we did to really solidify that position,” O’Connell said, referencing the Vikings’ trade for Mullens in 2022 training camp. “Any time you're going out to try to find a quarterback that you feel like when he's one snap away can win you some football games, you look for certain traits. Nick has them all. Love everything about his preparation. He allows us to prepare with a plan and doesn't need a whole lot of reps to then go in and execute that plan.”

Executing the whole offense appears to be the key. While O’Connell talked at length last week about trying to adapt the scheme to Dobbs’ strengths but that proved ineffective so now they are turning back to a quarterback who is more like Cousins in his playing style and experience in the offense as it is designed.

“[Mullens] executed our offense in rhythm at a really high level [against the Raiders], and the understanding, running the show, kind of the feel of what our offense felt like with him in there and some of those big time throws on third down, putting his back foot in the ground and giving our guys a chance to make a play,” O’Connell said.

Life is funny sometimes. Mullens would have been the starter had he not suffered a back injury early in the year. Instead he was on IR, which forced rookie Jaren Hall to start and then when he went down Dobbs took over and put together a magical win against the Falcons that springboarded him into a brief national sensation. But he came back to earth and now the rightful backup has been restored, just in time to play against a surging Cincinnati Bengals team with a chance to follow the footsteps of the ‘88 Browns and make the postseason.

Entering Sunday, the Vikings have around a 60% chance to make the playoffs, depending on which analytics website you consult. SumerSports had them gaining 21% in odds to make the postseason after their win and losses by the Rams and Packers.

What do they need to do in the final four games to get into the dance? The New York Times playoff odds machine breaks it down very simply: If the Vikings can take two out of the next four games, they are locks for the playoffs. If they go 1-3, their chances plummet unless the one win is against the Packers, then it’s still over 50%.

There’s an adage about backup QBs: They are good at their jobs if they can win you 50% of games. Well, if Mullens can go 2-for-4, it will be mission accomplished and the Vikings will not only reach the postseason but become one of only a handful of teams ever to overcome an 0-3 start and find themselves playing meaningful football in January.

Can he do it?

Over his career, Mullens has started 17 games and his team has come away with five victories. That’s not an unusual stat line for a backup quarterback. Even with some impressive showings this year by QB2/3/4s, backups are 31-48 in total this season.

But the circumstances are different across the league. Playing for the Vikings, who have elevated to an elite defense and have Justin Jefferson back (assuming he returns after leaving last week’s game) is different than trying to lead a struggling club to the finish line. Overall the Vikings are fifth in points allowed and still 13th in offensive Expected Points Added despite the issues over the last three weeks.

Health and opponents will matter. On Tuesday, Alexander Mattison and Brian O’Neill did not practice and Dalton Risner, Ed Ingram and Jefferson were limited. Mattison was just starting to find his groove, averaging 5.2 yards per carry over the last three weeks and O’Neill is irreplaceable when it comes to matching up with top pass rushers.

As far as opponents go, the Vikings defense will face a tougher challenge than the Broncos, Bears or Raiders in all four games. The Bengals, Lions and Packers all rank in the top half of the league offensively and Cincinnati is coming off a 34-point performance behind former Viking Jake Browning. Mullens probably won’t get any more W’s by posting three points. He will have a chance to put up numbers against these defenses. The Bengals are 29th in Expected Points Added, the Packers are 17th and Lions 20th.

Looking through Mullens’ advanced numbers, there is a clear trend in his play: When he’s given a clean pocket, he can get on a roll. When he’s pressured, there will be problems.

Yes, that’s the case for most QBs but with Mullens the gap is extreme. In 2018, per PFF, he managed the ninth lowest QB rating (out of 39 QBs) while under pressure. In 2020 he was fifth worst. With time to throw, however, Mullens ranked 11th and and 17th in QB rating in his two seasons as a semi-regular starter.

He was a turnover-worthy play machine with the pressure on. With the 49ers in 2020 Mullens had the third worst TWP rate under pressure behind only Drew Lock and Mitch Trubisky.

In recent weeks the Vikings’ pass blocking has run into some stumbling blocks. Dobbs has been the sixth most pressured QB in the league since joining the Vikings. Presumably Dobbs inviting pressure by not being able to get rid of the football on time is one of the reasons that Mullens is playing against the Bengals, Lions and Packers, who all have pass rushers capable of causing problems. In 2020, Mullens was 10th best by PFF at not causing his own pressure.

With the Vikings’ defense rolling, they will need Mullens to mostly not cause his own problems. O’Connell was quick to point out that a main reason why they pulled out an ugly win is that there were zero turnovers. Over Mullens’ 17 games, he has thrown 23 interceptions and fumbled eight times. That rate of miscue will not get the job done.

There are also limitations for pushing the ball down field based on his previous numbers. When throwing between 10-19 yards in the air in 2020, Mullens had a turnover-worthy play once every 7.6 drop-backs and produced just a 52.1 PFF grade. That would explain why 62% of his throws were under 10 yards.

Mullens has had his moments though. He has won two games in which he threw for over 300 yards and posted QB ratings over 100. He has three 3-TD games and six starts where he graded over 80 (out of 100) by PFF.

So the Vikings are banking on catching the right side of Mullens for the final stanza of the season. Or at least after Dobbs’ last three starts they have no other option than to take that swing and hope it works out like Don Strock in Cleveland.

Nick Mullens

Nick Mulles