NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Titans quarterback Joshua Dobbs was driving home to Atlanta on Christmas Eve to be with his family when he got a phone call. Titans quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara was on the other end when Dobbs picked up.
“Hey, can you come in tomorrow?” O’Hara said. “We want to go through the game plan. I just want you to see this stuff 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 present Dobbs received was getting the heads-up that he’d be the starter against the Dallas Cowboys for Week 17.
The Titans had to get a jump on preparation because the prime-time Thursday matchup meant a short week for Tennessee.
The starting spot 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 got the start in Week 16 against the Houston Texans but completed only 14 out of 23 attempts for 99 yards and had two interceptions in a 19-14 loss. Willis also started in Weeks 8 and 9, and the Titans are 1-3 in games when he hasn’t started.
Tennessee moved up in the third round of the draft to select Willis — a player some considered a first-round talent — at No. 86. But despite all of that, coach Mike Vrabel wanted to see what Dobbs could do, so he named him as the starter for Week 17.
Dobbs had never started a regular-season game in his career, and although the Titans fell 27-13, the experience was invaluable. Being a career backup required Dobbs to spend every week preparing as if he were the starter only to not see any actual game snaps.
Dobbs offered an analogy that is truly fitting of a guy with a 4.0 GPA as an aeronautical engineering major at the University of Tennessee.
“It’s like this is, 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, Wednesday. You go through the process, do the actual work. You go to after-hours and everything. And then Friday comes, and then you just don’t take the test.”
Naturally, Dobbs had some early-game jitters in his first start. But he told himself to “take a deep breath, stay present, stay in the moment, lock in on the game plan.” Dobbs finished with 20 completions on 39 attempts for 232 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception for a quarterback rating of 67.5.
That performance, and Dobbs’ emergence as a leader, has earned him the start against the Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8) on Saturday night (8:15 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN, ESPN+) in what amounts to an AFC South title game.
Jacksonville is in first place in the division after winning four straight to jump Tennessee (7-9), while the Titans are trying to punch their ticket to the playoffs and avoid ending the season on a seven-game losing streak.
It’s lose or go home for the Titans and Dobbs, who was only two weeks removed from being signed off the Detroit Lions‘ practice squad when he made his first start.
However, the soothing influence Dobbs possesses has rubbed off on teammates, some of whom he didn’t know by name when he suited up against Dallas.
“He brought a calming presence,” center Corey Levin said. “He’s not a big ‘rah-rah’ guy, but he gets the guys locked in, and there’s a confidence about it.”
Dobbs’ confidence comes from his preparation. The confidence showed from the start in how comfortably Dobbs articulated plays in practice and executed the offense. It was clear he had put in extra time to study and prepare himself.
As a backup with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2017 to 2019 and 2020 to 2021, Dobbs learned a lot from surefire Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger. Dobbs said he watched how Roethlisberger was consistent with his preparation. He admired how Roethlisberger poured into the guys by constantly discussing the details with the receivers who showed up on game day.
Now it’s Dobbs’ turn to put what he learned into action with a playoff berth on the line. Developing timing with receivers is always difficult for a new quarterback.
The enhanced pace is tough to duplicate without playing time, but Dobbs and some of the receivers have spent extra time after practice running routes to try to compensate for that.
Getting the third-leading rusher in the NFL back is good news against a Jacksonville defense that has allowed only 13.3 points per game over the past three weeks and handed the Titans a 36-22 loss in Week 14. The Jaguars will be focused on stopping Henry, who rushed for 117 yards in the first matchup.
Based on ESPN Analytics calculations, the Titans have a 15% chance to win the game and capture their third consecutive AFC South title, a streak that would be a first in franchise history.
It’ll be Dobbs’ job to help the passing game provide balance and take advantage of opportunities when they arise.
“Joshua is going to be very well prepared and understands that we will have to go into a great environment on Saturday night,” Vrabel said. “He understands that. He has played quarterback. He has played in front of big crowds. He has played in big games.”
The magnitude of Saturday’s game isn’t lost on Dobbs, and he isn’t shying away from the moment.
“It is a tremendous 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 and deliver.”