6:00 a.m. Eastern Time
Nougat Davenport ESPN
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Titans quarterback Joshua Dobbs was driving to his Atlanta home on Christmas Eve to be with his family when he received a phone call. Titans quarterbacks coach Pat O‘Hara was on the other end when Dobbs answered.
“Hey, can you come tomorrow?” she said O’Hara. “We want to go over the game plan. I just want you to see this as soon as possible.”
Dobbs spent Christmas morning at home, then turned around and drove back to the Titans facility that afternoon. As it turned out, the best Christmas gift Dobbs ever received was receiving notice that he would be the starter against the Dallas Cowboys for Week 17.
The Titans had to speed up preparation because Thursday’s prime-time matchup meant a short week for Tennessee.
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The starting job opened up after Ryan Tannehill suffered an ankle injury in Week 15 against the Los Angeles Chargers that landed him on injured reserve. Rookie Malik Willis started in Week 16 against the Houston Texans, but completed just 14 of 23 attempts for 99 yards and had two interceptions in the 19-14 loss. Willis also started Weeks 8 and 9, and the Titans are 1-3 in games in which he hasn’t started.
Tennessee advanced in the third round of the draft to select Willis, a player some considered a first-round talent, with the 86th pick. But despite all that, coach Mike Vrabel wanted to see what Dobbs could do, so he decided named him the starter for week 17.
Dobbs had never started a regular-season game in his career, and even though the Titans fell 27-13, the experience was invaluable. Being a run backup required Dobbs to spend every week preparing as if he were the starter only to not see any actual snapshots of the game.
“It’s like this, you know, you have an algebra test every Friday,” Dobbs said. “You have to prepare for the test. You prepare, you do all the homework on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. You go through the process, you do the actual work. You go into overtime and everything. And then Friday comes and then you just don’t do the exam. Test”.
Naturally, Dobbs had some nerves early in the game in his first start. But he told himself “take a deep breath, stay present, stay in the moment, stay focused on the game plan.” Dobbs finished with 20 of 39 completions for 232 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception for a 67.5 quarterback rating.
That performance, and Dobbs’ emergence as a leader, earned him a start against the Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8) on Saturday night (8:15 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN, ESPN+) in what amounts to one game for the AFC South title. .
Jacksonville is in first place in the division after winning four straight to edge Tennessee (7-9), while the Titans are trying to clinch their playoff berth and avoid ending the season on a seven-game losing streak.
It’s lose or go home for the Titans and Dobbs, who was just two weeks away from being cut from the Detroit Lions’ practice squad when he made his first start.
However, Dobbs’ calming influence has rubbed off on his teammates, some of whom he didn’t know by name when he faced Dallas.
“He brought a calming presence,” center Corey Levin said. “He’s not a big ‘rah-rah’ guy, but he locks guys down, and there’s confidence about it.”
Titans quarterback Joshua Dobbs will make his second NFL start in a game Tennessee must win to enter the playoffs. Andrew Nelles/USA TODAY Sports
Dobbs’ confidence comes from his preparation. The confidence showed early on in the ease with which Dobbs articulated plays in practice and ran the offense. It was clear that he had spent more time studying and preparing.
As a backup with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2017-19 and 2020-21, Dobbs learned a lot from unerring Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger. Dobbs said he saw how consistent Roethlisberger was in preparing him. He admired how Roethlisberger went out of his way with the guys, constantly discussing the details with the receivers who showed up on game day.
Now it’s Dobbs’ turn to put what he’s learned into practice with a playoff spot on the line. Developing time with receivers is always difficult for a new quarterback.
The improved pace is hard to duplicate without playing time, but Dobbs and some of the receivers have put in extra time after practicing running routes to try to make up for that.
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This week, Dobbs will also have the luxury of playing Pro Bowl running back Derrick Henry, who was among the six starters who missed last week’s game.
Bringing back the third-leading running back in the NFL is good news against a Jacksonville defense that has allowed just 13.3 points per game over the past three weeks and handed the Titans a 36-22 loss in Week 14. They’ll focus on stopping Henry, who rushed for 117 yards in the first meeting.
According to ESPN Analytics calculations, the Titans have a 15% chance to win the game and capture their third straight AFC South title, a streak that would be the first in franchise history.
Dobbs’ job will be to help the passing game provide balance and take advantage of opportunities when they arise.
“Joshua will be very well prepared and understands that we will have to go into a great atmosphere on Saturday night,” Vrabel said. “He understands that. He’s played quarterback. He’s played in front of big crowds. He’s played in big games.”
The magnitude of Saturday’s game is not lost on Dobbs, and he’s not shying away from the moment.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Dobbs said. “I’m excited to lead this week. Just be yourself in how you prepare, how you approach each day, each meeting, each practice. Then when the ball is in hand, you have to go out there and deliver.”