Joshua Dobbs: The aerospace engineer who could finally establish himself as an NFL quarterback

Joshua Dobbs while working at NASA's Glenn Research Center
Joshua Dobbs has worked with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center and Glenn Research Center
Dates: 7 September 2023 – 7 January 2024
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If learning an NFL playbook is like rocket science, then it is just as well Joshua Dobbs has a degree in aerospace engineering.

Over an eventful 12 months, the journeyman quarterback has had to swot up on offensive plays for five different teams.

During that time, he has made his first NFL start at the age of 27 and played for two different teams on consecutive Sundays.

That whirlwind week culminated in Dobbs, 28, coming off the bench to lead the Minnesota Vikings to a last-gasp victory.

Now the aerospace engineer has the chance to finally establish himself as an NFL player and defy those who said “you can’t do both”.

‘Maximising my time on and off the field’

Joshua Dobbs with the MVP trophy after Tennessee won the TaxSlayer Bowl in 2015
Dobbs won awards both on and off the field at Tennessee, earning recognition for his academic and community work

Dobbs started playing football when he was five and has been fascinated by aviation and space just as long, so when he went to the University of Tennessee in 2013 he chose to study aerospace engineering, with a minor in business.

Despite being told starting quarterbacks seldom study majors that demanding, Dobbs managed to earn a perfect 4.0 grade-point average while setting a host of records on the football team. He also made time for an internship with an aerospace manufacturer.

Dobbs entered the NFL draft in 2017 and was selected with the 135th pick, but in his first five years in the league, he came on briefly in just five games for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Eager not to let his studies go to waste, Dobbs spent time with the US Air Force, even flying a fighter jet. He also joined an externship programme run by the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), working with Nasa at the Kennedy Space Center and Glenn Research Center.

“I’ve been deliberate,” Dobbs told the NFLPA.external-link “I’m maximizing my time on the field and in the weight room. Then off the field, I’m maximizing my time to enjoy those other interests while also setting up opportunities to build myself as more than an athlete.”

For Dobbs, those interests include a grant-making foundation he established last year and a clothing line he started to “inspire people like me”, who strive to achieve feats “beyond what others think is possible”.

Life as a journeyman quarterback

Joshua Dobbs playing for Arizona Cardinals
In eight games for Arizona, Dobbs registered 1,569 passing yards, eight touchdown passes and three rushing touchdowns

This time last year, Dobbs was a back-up with the Cleveland Browns and a nomadic year began when he was released on Deshaun Watson’s return from suspension.

He then spent time on the Detroit Lions practice squad before joining the Tennessee Titans, starting their last two games of the 2022 season, and Cleveland re-signed him in March.

Dobbs wants to gain a pilot’s licence, and just a few days after taking his first training flight in Cleveland in August, he was traded to the Arizona Cardinals, who needed cover while Kyler Murray completed his recovery from a knee injury.

Dobbs earned the starter’s job – for the first time in his career he was given a run of NFL games. Days before the Cardinals’ defeat by Baltimore, his furniture finally arrived in Arizona. Two days after the game he was traded to Minnesota.

Murray was set to return for the Cardinals and the Vikings had lost Kirk Cousins to a season-ending injury. Although Arizona had a 1-7 record with Dobbs, he had impressed.

He met his new team-mates and staff on the Wednesday before Minnesota played the Atlanta Falcons, but with rookie Jaren Hall preparing to start that Sunday, Dobbs did not take a single rep in practice. Yet Hall suffered a concussion in the game and Dobbs was thrust into the action in the second quarter.

‘The Passtronaut’ lands in Minnesota

Joshua Dobbs playing for the Minnesota Vikings
In three quarters against Atlanta, Dobbs registered 66 rushing yards – more than double what Kirk Cousins has managed all season

Understandably, Dobbs made a shaky start. He still did not know most of his team-mates’ full names. But they and the coaching staff helped him bounce back with a stunning performance.

Dobbs later described the game as “learn as you go, hair on fire, hold on to your seat”. He finished with two touchdown passes and a rushing touchdown, becoming the first player in NFL history to combine for three passing and rushing touchdowns in consecutive weeks with different teams.

Atlanta snatched the lead with two minutes left, but Dobbs responded by becoming the first player in Vikings history to lead a game-winning drive on their debut. They won 31-28, he became an immediate fans’ favourite and earned a new nickname – ‘the Passtronaut’.

He led them to another win last Sunday – 27-19 against the New Orleans Saints – and Dobbs feels his studies have helped.

“We’re not out there doing engineering equations on the field, but I had to cram for a lot of engineering tests and procrastinated a little bit in college,” he said.

“This is very similar to that. Having to process a lot of information definitely prepared me for situations like this.”

Former Vikings receiver Jake Reed told BBC Sport: “The coaching staff didn’t throw the whole playbook at him, they just used plays that he’s comfortable with. Now they can expand the playbook.”

‘Just a ball player having fun’

Joshua Dobbs celebrates the Minnesota Vikings' win over the New Orleans Saints
Dobbs passed for 268 yards and a touchdown against New Orleans, and also scored a rushing touchdown

Dobbs’ sudden success in Minnesota has warmed the hearts of NFL fans, not just because of his backstory but because “he just looks like a ball player having fun”, says Reed.

“He’s playing with no pressure, with nothing to lose – just get in there, be yourself and make plays,” he added.

“I’m pretty sure they told him that if [a pass] is not there then take off and run, just don’t turn the ball over. He’s done a great job of using his legs, and that’s brought a whole new dimension to our offence.

“Quarterbacks have to be smart, and it can be difficult if the guys don’t rally round you. But the Vikings want to win and they’ve got some big talent.”

Minnesota had a 1-4 record when star receiver Justin Jefferson sustained a hamstring injury, yet they have won all five games since, despite losing their franchise quarterback too.

“They’re winning without their main guy so they’re confident. Imagine what they’re going to feel when Justin Jefferson comes back,” Reed said.

“It’s always great to get hot later in the season – you can make a push for the play-offs and roll into the post-season. I see great things for the Vikings going down the stretch.”

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