NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Titans face a very big decision with the AFC South title up for grabs in the regular-season finale in Jacksonville.
Start Joshua Dobbs? Or go back to rookie Malik Willis?
Dobbs entered the NFL in 2017 and was signed Dec. 21 off Detroit's practice squad. He is coming off his first career start in a 27-13 loss Thursday night to Dallas.
Willis, their third-round pick, barely has more passing yards in his three starts with Derrick Henry with him in the backfield than Dobbs managed in one game. All the Titans (7-9) know for sure is that Ryan Tannehill isn't available after being placed on injured reserve hours before kickoff.
Coach Mike Vrabel said the decision to start Dobbs after barely a week of being on the team was the opportunity to evaluate the veteran and compare him to Willis.
“We’ll continue to just digest this over the weekend and kind of make a decision," Vrabel said. "Malik has worked hard, but then we just have to kind of go see where we’re at at the quarterback position here going down to the last week of the season.”
Dobbs threw for 232 yards and his first career touchdown, a 7-yard pass to veteran Robert Woods that pulled the Titans within 17-13 late in the third quarter. The former University of Tennessee quarterback made sure he got the ball for a souvenir. Dobbs also was intercepted late and sacked twice.
The quarterback who was a fourth-round pick by Pittsburgh in 2017 got a call from quarterbacks coach Pat O'Hara hours after a 19-14 loss to Houston on Dec. 24 asking him to come in to the team headquarters on Christmas Day. Vrabel said he told both early in the week that Dobbs would start.
Dobbs, who graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering and has spent two years at NASA's Kennedy Space Flight Center as part of the NFLPA’s program, had appeared in six games in his career. He played in five with the Steelers in 2018 and one in 2020.
This became his seventh career appearance when Dobbs started on the same field he wrapped up his college career with a win in the 2016 Music City Bowl.
For Tannehill to have a chance to play again this season, Tennessee will have to beat the Jaguars in Jacksonville in the regular-season finale for the AFC South title and advance to the AFC championship game. That won't be easy with now 22 players on injured reserve.
Dobbs became the 83rd different player when he started Thursday night, an NFL-high a year after playing a league-high 91 players — most ever in a non-strike season. He also is familiar with the Jaguars after spending the 2019 season with Jacksonville after being traded by Pittsburgh for a fifth-round pick.
Willis has appeared in eight games this season and is 1-2 as a starter. He is 31 of 61 for 276 yards with three interceptions. Willis ran for his first NFL touchdown in last week's loss to Houston.
Dobbs' teammates liked his poise.
“He’ s a smart quarterback, being able to pick up on the offense fast and being able to communicate with us,” Woods said.
The Titans have lost six straight, blowing the four-game lead Tennessee once had atop the AFC South. They get the weekend off to rest knowing exactly what's possible whenever their finale at Jacksonville is scheduled. A win clinches the team's third straight division title.
“We come out with a win, then we’re in the playoffs and we’re rolling from there,” Dobbs said. "So we control our own destiny. Guys understand that.”
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