Kevin O’Connell Has Mismanaged the QB Quandary

Syndication: Journal Sentinel

Deciding to stick with Joshua Dobbs coming out of the bye was a mistake. After more than three quarters of post-bye football, Kevin O’Connell rectified the mistake by inserting Nick Mullens into the game.

In the end, Mullens had what it took for the Vikings to snatch win #7. Very few would have predicted that the 3-0 triumph could have been the final victory of the season.

From the bye onward, the Vikings have only played four games. What has felt like an eternity has, in reality, been around a month of NFL football. Maybe the preeminent story of the past four games is the ongoing QB turmoil that has undermined Minnesota’s effort to waltz into the playoffs. How does O’Connell, the team’s head coach and offensive architect, fit into these QB struggles?

Kevin O’Connell Has Been Struggling at QB

Putting 100% of the blame on the head coach’s shoulders would be foolish. After all, he’s merely one piece of the Minnesota machine (albeit one with huge significance).

NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings
Dec 24, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell reacts to a call during the second quarter against the Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Stepping back, though, leaves one with the distinct impression that things could have proceeded more smoothly if different decisions were made.

Prior to the bye, riding with Joshua Dobbs was an eminently reasonable thing to do. After all, the brainy journeyman had put together magical performances against the Falcons and Saints while Jaren Hall and Nick Mullens were hurt. Sticking with him even after the other QB options got reworked into the roster was thoroughly uncontroversial.

Nov 5, 2023; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Joshua Dobbs (15) jumps over Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Kentavius Street (75) during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Coming out of the bye, though, was a different story.

By the time the Raiders game hit in Week 14, Dobbs had shown that he would struggle to get anything going within Minnesota’s talented offense. That reality was only further reinforced by Dobbs’ inability to score in Las Vegas, eventually leading to the Mullens insertion and game-winning drive.

The flip over to Mullens became complicated by his propensity for throwing picks in Week 15 and Week 16. Yes, Mullens can pile up yards and even score plenty of points, but he’s going to do so while giving the ball to the opposition way too much. Did that mean he should get benched in favor of Jaren Hall?

Dec 24, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Nick Mullens (12) looks to pass against the Detroit Lions during the first quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

For a half of football, the answer was yes, at least in O’Connell’s estimation.

The issue, of course, is that the rookie 5th-round selection struggled. And in fairness to Hall, the plan was never for the late-round rookie to play a must-win game against Minnesota’s most hated rival on Sunday Night Football. Put simply, the ask was too large for someone who was supposed to be an upside QB3 for the duration of 2023 (and maybe even all of 2024).

Once again, Mullens got tossed back into the game. So, for those keeping score at home, take a look at the QB moves over the post-bye games:

  • Week 14: Dobbs, Mullens
  • Week 15: Mullens
  • Week 16: Mullens
  • Week 17: Hall, Mullens
  • Week 18: Mystery Man

Or, put differently, there has been three QB benchings in four weeks. Dobbs was benched during Week 14, Mullens was benched after Week 16, and Hall was benched during Week 17.

At the end of his post-game press conference, Kevin O’Connell spoke about the QB situation. “Yeah, I think we’re trying to do whatever we can,” the coach notes, “to feature some of our players that we think are game changers for us at the skill position.” Folks, that’s really the critical issue.

Even without T.J. Hockenson — a major loss, to be sure — the Vikings still boast a dynamic twosome in Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison. Failing to have a QB who will at least give those two a chance is a major issue. Whoever is playing quarterback for the Vikings cannot undermine the team’s most dynamic weapons.

Dec 24, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Nick Mullens (12) reacts while being chased by Detroit Lions linebacker Alex Anzalone (34) during the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

With that being the main filter — getting the pigskin to Jefferson and Addison early and often — the choice is clear: Nick Mullens should continue playing.

Yes, the turnovers are horrendous, but each of the QBs struggle with turnovers. Mullens is the only one who has shown that he’s capable of moving the offense. And, crucially, he has done so even when the defense struggles and the running game goes silent.

The very end of the aforementioned press conference featured O’Connell saying that all three of his quarterbacks — Nick Mullens, Jaren Hall, and Joshua Dobbs — will be under consideration to start in Week 18. Truthfully, there should be no suspense: Mullens is going to be the starter since he’s the only one who has proven he can use Minnesota’s immense skill.

Armchair coaching is supremely easy; NFL coaching is supremely difficult. So, in a lot of ways there’s nothing impressive at all when we lean on hindsight to point out these concerns.

Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for the reality that’s still in front of us: the reason why NFL coaches are in their position is because they’re supposed to be uniquely qualified to make the difficult decisions in a manner that will be most conducive to success. The flip-flopping at quarterback didn’t undermine the win against the Raiders, but the Packers outcome isn’t as clear-cut. By the time Hall was removed, the game was close to being decided (the awful performance from the defense didn’t help).

Expect the Vikings to roll with Mr. Mullens in Week 18 as they continue onward with their supremely-unlikely playoff push.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.