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Weekend's games underscore the backup QB wild ride in the NFL

All over the league teams are riding the highs and lows of the backup QB experience.

Minnesota Vikings fans have gone through quite the range of emotions since Kirk Cousins was lost for the season to an Achilles tear in a 24-10 win over the Green Bay Packers in Week 8.

First, Josh Dobbs pulled off a magical comeback off the bench against the Atlanta Falcons behind wild scrambles and head coach Kevin O’Connell trying to teach him the offense via the headset. Then Dobbs made everyone believe for a split second that there might be a second coming of 2017 Case Keenum when he dominated the New Orleans Saints to the tune of 28 first half points in his first start.

In Denver the Vikings dropped a game they should have won via two costly late turnovers but there wasn’t much reason to think the magic carpet ride was completely over that night. Maybe it would just fly at a lower altitude. But it became quickly apparently that the carpet wasn’t just grounded but thrown into storage and locked away forever. Dobbs threw four interceptions in a 12-10 loss to Chicago and then in Las Vegas, when O’Connell gave Dobbs one more chance to shine and vowed to play to his strengths, they ended up in the fourth quarter with zero points. The head coach pushed the EJECT button and went to journeyman Nick Mullens.

The last five quarters of Mullens have been an entire experience in themselves. He led a game-winning drive against the Raiders and then — despite two baffling interceptions — had the Vikings up two scores in the fourth quarter against the Bengals.

With 15 minutes remaining in Cincinnati it looked like Mullens would have them in the driver’s seat for the postseason. With Justin Jefferson back and Ty Chandler adding a new explosive element to the offense, hey maybe…

But it came crashing down. The Bengals scored three straight touchdown drives, Mullens failed two QB sneaks in overtime and former Viking Jake Browning led a game-winning drive and then talked his smack at the podium about having been released by Minnesota.

Nick Mullens

Dec 16, 2023; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Nick Mullens (12) throws a pass against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first half at Paycor Stadium. 

As if this team wasn’t prone to living on the razor’s edge when a veteran franchise QB in Cousins was under center, adding backup QBs to the mix has been like strapping rocket boosters to the roller coaster.

That doesn’t mean everyone is enjoying the ride. The social media rage directed toward O’Connell was at 10 out of 10 after the loss, which dropped the Vikings to 7-7 and sunk their playoff odds significantly.

Even when the initial anger from fans wore off, the lingering sentiment seemed to be that trust in O’Connell has been shaken. To be clear, this isn’t drawing from the lunatic fringe, rather well-reasoned fans who have been through it all.

One rational commenter wrote: “I don't think “KOC can't coach", "KOC should step down", "Put in Flores" or any of this, but KOC has 3 or 4 moments per game in this mess where he's thinking so far outside the box that it's, like, dude. Come back to Earth. Work with what you have.”

Another said: “I definitely don’t want the guy fired, I’m just starting to see him more as a motivator and play designer than an in-game play caller”

We can find objective truth in statements like this. Having TJ Hockenson toss the ball to Josh Dobbs in Denver or Justin Jefferson throw a pass against Cincinnati may have been too far outside the box. Using Brandon Powell to push the tush doesn’t seem all that effective when Powell is the smallest guy on the team. And even as difficult as questioning play calling can be, pushing the “pass” button with Mullens on third-and-long at the end of the half when he had already thrown a preposterous interception and Ty Chandler was ripping off explosive runs all day was just asking to get burned. Indeed, they got burned with another bad INT.

The challenging thing is to figure out where the line should be drawn between reasonable criticism and questions about whether the Vikings will be able to make the most of their talent in the future and completely throwing our hands in the air and yelling “BACKUP QUARTERBACKSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!”

There was a pretty good argument for the latter when watching how the rest of the league played out on Sunday. Playing a backup QB has the potential to make any coach look like a total genius when it works and a fool when they get burned.

Through three quarters of the Cleveland Browns’ game against the Chicago Bears, it appeared that the heartwarming Joe Flacco story might be coming to an end. Cleveland’s first five drives went punt, punt, punt, punt, interception. With just over three minutes left in the third quarter Flacco threw his third pick with the Browns down 17-7. But somehow 2012 playoff Flacco showed up on the final two drives and the Bears’ offense sputtered and Cleveland came out with a 3-point win.

ESPN’s QBR stat is built to give us a general idea of how often a QB wins with a particular performance. Flacco scored a 22.4 out of 100, which was 20 points worse than Mullens. Yet since Cleveland won (on a dropped Hail Mary, no less), the Kevin Stefanski buzz for Coach of the Year was everywhere.

Elsewhere, Zach Wilson went 4-for-11 with 26 yards passing and four sacks just seven days after winning Offensive Player of the Week. Case Keenum also had a lower QBR than Mullens (35.5) and beat the Titans by a field goal, mostly because rookie Will Levis too seven sacks.

Remember last week when Giants backup Tommy DeVito was the talk of the town following a win over the Green Bay Packers? The game was so impressive that his agent and family became national treasures and there was a report that he doubled his local appearance fees. Well, he might have to give discounts after this week because DeVito threw for just 177 yards and took seven sacks in a 24-6 loss to the Saints.

In New England Bailey Zappe went viral for a cordial handshake with head coach Bill Belichick after a three-touchdown win over the Steelers. This week he threw 31 passes for 180 yards in a lifeless 27-17 loss to the Chiefs.

Mitch Trubisky and Easton Stick lost by a total of 59 points. Of course, Aidan O’Connell scored zero points against the Vikings and then put up a 63 spot on the Chargers. Gardner Minshew dropped 30 on the Steelers.

The Vikings are riding the same wave as about one-third of the league. Backups make heroes and fools out of coaches. Brandon Staley got fired after the loss to the Raiders. There are rumors that Belichick and Mike Tomlin could both be let go. Promising up-and-coming coaches Robert Salah and Brian Daboll look like they have aged 20 years this season.

As it pertains to O’Connell, some may view the lows of this season as proof that there needs to be pressure on him next year, others could look at the big picture alone, which is that making the playoffs would be quite an accomplishment without QB1. How will you view the Browns when you only see snippets and highlights and don’t analyze every single play call? How about the Colts?

Speaking of the playoffs, the Vikings somehow still have very good odds of making it after the Packers melted down against the Tampa Bay Bucs. According to the New York Times playoff machine they are still at 56% to secure a spot in the postseason. Any combination of two wins gets them into the playoffs but a 1-2 finish could sink their odds if one of the losses is to the Packers on Christmas Eve.

Will they make it? Who knows. We have no possible way of figuring out when the backup QB pendulum will swing for or against the Vikings. If they miss the playoffs it might be unreasonable to question the coaching considering the circumstances but it’s unrealistic to think that folks will only be shrugging their shoulders at losses, even if every team in the league without its starter is on the same wild ride.