Why Ben Johnson is atop the coaching wish list
As Black Monday looms, expect many teams to woo Detroit Lions' offensive coordinator. Here's why.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. — The 180 turnaround is real in the NFL. Look no further than Saturday’s win-and-in showcase. The DeMeco Ryans-led Houston Texans travel to Indianapolis to face the Shane Steichen-led Colts with a trip to the playoffs on the line. And if Jacksonville loses? The winner also takes the AFC South.
Remarkable considering the sad state of both unions last year. The Texans and Colts were a combined 7-25-2. Jeff Saturday, fresh out of the ESPN booth, blew that 33-0 lead to Minnesota and was also outscored 33-0 in a fourth quarter by Dallas. The Texans weren’t too interested in winning for a good two years, David Culley to Lovie Smith, with a rough roster. All a Davis Mills vs. Sam Ehlinger quarterback duel in the finale ensured was that the Texans lost the No. 1 pick to the Chicago Bears.
Both rebuilds for both AFC South teams appeared to be total demolitions. Any daydreaming of a 10-win season required medical attention.
Yet, Ryans and Steichen swiftly reinvigorated their respective fan bases.
Texans vs. Colts may now decide the 2023 Coach of the Year.
A promising reminder to all because, when this 2023 regular season concludes, a slew of teams will officially start hunting for a new head man. The Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders and Carolina Panthers already hit reset. They’ll soon be joined by the Washington Commanders and, likely, the New England Patriots. Many flowery news reports of coaches elsewhere being “safe” may be crumpled and thrown into the trash with one change of heart by an owner. We’ve seen it repeatedly. Right now, hope can sure seem lost for teams. The Chargers made Justin Herbert the richest player in NFL history… only to go 5-11. Panthers owner David Tepper, a 66-year-old billionaire, tossed a drink at a fan.
Yet, constantly, we see proof that fortunes change quickly in this league.
When mass interviews begin, the name Ben Johnson will circulate more than any other. The Detroit Lions’ offensive coordinator will be in high-demand — rightfully so.
This rebuild in the Motor City, of course, has been meticulous. The Lions have transformed from 3-13-1 to 9-8 to 11-5 contenders with Johnson, the OC, building one of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL. His play design is innovative. His playcalling, fearless. Production speaks for itself: Detroit ranks sixth in passing (4,286 yards), fourth in rushing (2,241 yards) and have scored the third-most touchdowns (54) in the NFL. Jared Goff revitalized his career. When this unit is synchronized, rushing lanes part like the sea. Receivers are wide open. There are flea-flickers… and third-down passes to Penei Sewell… and 2-point passes to Taylor Decker. The Lions turn Sundays into backyard football.
Most owners crave offensive minds at the edge of innovation. That’s why the coaching trees of Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan were pillaged. Those who are a step behind will resemble dinosaurs — fast. That was the problem in Carolina. Frank Reich’s playbook was suddenly collecting cobwebs and the Panthers had too much invested in Bryce Young. It’s no shock Carolina reportedly covets Johnson.
Yet, the job is also more than X’s and O’s.
That’s why one longtime Buffalo Bill was so forceful with his personal PSA for owners:
“No. 1: Try to learn football. A little bit,” he said, in Part II of The McDermott Problem.
“No. 2: Just because people are good playcallers does not mean they’re good leaders of an entire f--king organization.”
The job demands more. So, while visiting the Detroit Lions for a story we’ll be posting next week, I figured it was worth learning more about the assistant coach dominating the coaching rumor mill: Ben Johnson. Players cannot guarantee the Lions OC will spark a renaissance wherever he lands, but they sure like his odds. Yes, the reason Johnson has become such a hot commodity is the video-game offense he created. But he also has a unique vantage point. There are bad football teams, and then there’s the historically cursed Lions. A team with one playoff win since 1957. He’s seen, firsthand, how Dan Campbell changed everything.
Getting players to genuinely believe is a skill.
Doing so while still demanding accountability is even harder.
No head coach squeezes the absolute most talent out of his players like Campbell.
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The emotional speeches are infectious. There’s nobody in the NFL that anyone would rather slug beers with than Dan Campbell. When he professes his love for players? He means it. That closeness was much needed after the wretched Matt Patricia era. But don’t get it twisted. Campbell does not coddle guys. BS, in any form, isn’t tolerated. The Lions vanquished the “bad juju” and went to work finding players who fit the team’s DNA. Campbell seeks a specific personality type. And once he realizes a player does not fit this DNA, that player is benched. Or cut. His train keeps moving.
Trusty podcast co-host Bob McGinn made an astute observation this week. McGinn has been covering the NFL since 1979 and knows what a hard-working team truly resembles. Era to era to era. This Lions staff full of former pros — Campbell, Aaron Glenn, Antwaan Randle-El, Mark Brunell — is all business, he explained. There’s no showboating, no screwing around. The Lions are “not putting up with any bullshit,” he said. There’s maximum effort from guys up and down the roster. It’s nonstop. It’s relentless. Receivers block. Corners hit. “They don’t care about the score or nothing,” McGinn added. “Those coaches are on these people. I can just imagine what it’s like behind closed doors.”
None of this is an accident. One of those wide receivers who has fueled such a culture, Josh Reynolds, asserts the Lions sincerely seek players who “love the game, love their teammates, aren’t selfish.” If that sounds commonplace, think again. Reynolds knows of plenty of role players around the NFL who do not operate this way. He’s become a quintessential Campbell guy himself. The 6-foot-3, 194-pound vet was drafted by the L.A. Rams in the 2017 fourth round, worked his way into a starting role, was signed by the Titans, waived and has carved out a niche here in Detroit as a reliable third option. Reynolds is up to 35 receptions for 564 yards with five touchdowns this season.
The reason guys like him keep earning paychecks is no secret. Regardless of targets, he’s willing to fully exert himself 50 of 50 snaps.
Finding this player is harder than ever.
“Having to be in that third role, fourth role,” Reynolds says. “It gets tough sometimes. I’m going to be here for my guys whenever they need me. And so having guys like that, instead of ‘I’m not getting nothing, they’re not showing me no love here, man. What am I going to block for? What am I going to do this for?’”
Reynolds knows it’s easy for anyone to loaf exactly as Diontae Johnson did in Cincinnati on Najee Harris’ fumble after dropping a TD or refuse to block exactly as George Pickens did vs. Indy because he was trying to avoid injury. Perhaps Mike Tomlin read both starting wide receivers the Riot Act behind closed doors, but neither was benched. No statement was sent to the entire team. This wasn’t the first time the two starters supplied a questionable effort.
So, it begs one question: If a wide receiver pulled such a stunt in Detroit, what happens?
“He’s out of there,” Reynolds says. “Dan don’t play that — for real. He’ll come in and tell you: ‘I don’t care about your name. I don’t care about the draft status. We don’t care about none of that. We need guys that are here for the team.’”
A message the entire locker room appreciates. Catering to stars can create an imbalance. Countless coaches say they don’t care where you’re drafted or how much money you’re making, and then… actions suggest the opposite. Wideout Trent Sherfield shed light on this darker reality last offseason. When Campbell insists he doesn’t care about your “name,” the Lions coach backs it up. Which earns him cred.
“I’m like, ‘Shit. You come into a team meeting and say that?’ I have a hard time not trusting a guy like that,” Reynolds says. “That’s a big thing in this league: Trusting. Being able to trust somebody telling you what they really mean. Because you’ll get a lot of teams and a lot of coaches that’ll tell you something but mean something else.
“There’s no point in that. If you want the best out of guys, tell ‘em the truth: ‘Shit, you need to work here. Look, we just got guys better than you in front of you. There’s no counting you out, but keep working.’ You hear that and it’s like, ‘Alright, well I know where I stand on the team.’ … Authenticity. Dan’s got that a hundred-fold.”
There’s no way to know how Ben Johnson will lead. Everyone is different. The mistake so many owners make is assuming a coordinator will manage a team exactly as his former boss did. Reynolds isn’t sure why so many excellent coordinators flame out as head coaches, but he knows what most all players want. And Johnson has had a front-row seat to it all.
“A player’s coach who’s not going to bullshit,” he says. “Dan. Perfect example. A guy that’s just not going BS us. He’s going to tell us how it is: ‘We played like crap. So, we’re going to come in and we’re going to practice hard.’”
Surprise, surprise: Lions practice was more strenuous after their wake-up call of a loss to the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving Day.
No coach knows how to strike this balance until they’re on the job, too. Reynolds thinks back to his Rams days. When NFL teams were hiring everyone but McVay’s personal barista, he wasn’t so sure how quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor would pan out in Cincinnati. In L.A., Taylor was quiet and reserved. Clearly, Taylor found his voice. The Bengals reached back-to-back conference championships and now his assistants warrant promotions. Even McVay needed two seasons to figure out his own style as the youngest head coach in NFL history. Early on, Reynolds says the 30-year-old tried to be players’ buddy. Which created awkwardness when McVay would then act big and bad in team meetings. “Do this! Do that!” imitates Reynolds. Eventually, however, McVay started hitting the right notes.
There’s a line. Generation Z can be quite sensitive. Reynolds has heard many horror stories of old-school coaches going too far.
Only time will tell on Johnson.
“He’s going to go through some growing pains,” Reynolds says, “because it’s all about finding what style you want to coach with — what kind of head coach do you want to be?”
Working with Campbell every day sure supplies an ideal blueprint.
The key is then marrying a coaching style with the reason Johnson is atop those lists: His offensive acumen.
Once this regular season concludes, there’s a reasonable chance Detroit finishes with a 4,000-yard passer (Goff), two 1,000-yard rushers (David Montgomery, Jahmyr Gibbs), a 1,400-yard wide receiver (Amon-Ra St. Brown) and a 900-yard tight end (Sam LaPorta). Six times the Lions have eclipsed 400 yards of offense in a game. Under the coordination of Matt Canada, the Steelers infamously failed to reach the 400 mark in 58 straight games. Unpredictability reigns in Detroit. This collection of weapons kill opponents with paper cuts, with 15-play drives. They also take shots deep. And finish in the red zone, scoring touchdowns 63 percent of the time (fifth-best in the NFL). And run where most teams pass. And pass where most teams run. Remember this fourth and 1 at Lambeau Field last year? It’s almost impossible for opposing coordinators to nail down his tendencies because the Lions are capable of jamming 11 bodies together to play smashmouth and spreading five receivers wide.
Reynolds estimates that the Lions are in the perfect play call for whichever defensive alignment they face 80 percent of the time. It’s a look they practiced all week. The second receivers see it, they’re practically salivating.
Always, the Lions stay aggressive. They’re 39 of 75 on fourth downs the past two seasons with Johnson’s playcalling complementing Campbell’s brass-balls nature.
This is the trait that stands out most as a playcaller.
Says Reynolds: “He’s not scared.”
LaPorta, a Pro Bowler in Year 1, first cites the offensive line as the foundation to it all. A nasty unit to be sure. The rookie has seen Johnson devise plays he’s never imagined.
But it’s also when Johnson decides to call such plays. He challenges norms.
“You just see different things drawn up every week that you say, ‘Wow, man, I never would’ve thought of doing that,’” LaPorta says. “It’s the creativity and also not having the fear of actually calling those plays. I think a lot of coordinators in the NFL are skeptical or hesitant to maybe run some of the things that you see us run. ‘Man! Wow, that worked for them. I can’t believe they ran that!’”
Like anything in life, you’re not scared when you’re prepared.
Fearlessness is rooted in an obsession with details. Johnson loves telling players that details are the secret sauce to this Lions offense. Drilling plays down to the step. Johnson actually arrived in Detroit two years before Campbell as a quality control coach in 2019. He has climbed the ladder from QC to tight ends coach to passing game coordinator to full-fledged offensive coordinator through different regimes. Quarterback David Blough has been here every step of the way, too. He also arrived in ’19 and has seen Johnson grow immensely over the last five seasons.
A QC background always comes in handy. You cut up so much film, you’re bound to store a few tricks away for the future. Like, say, a “Philly Special.”
Johnson is described as an effective teacher. He’s able to transfer everything players see on film to the field.
“A gifted communicator,” Blough says. “His whole career has just been founded in hard work where he’s been the grinder just his whole time and he’s not afraid to be creative. So he maximizes his guys’ skill-sets and then allows them to go and play fast because of the way he communicates the details. His gift is definitely communicating details.”
There’s always been a method to the fake-punt madness in Detroit. One of those inspiring speeches on Hard Knocks only means something if the head coach’s actions back it up. To extinguish “bad juju” — to now chase a championship — Campbell is constantly proving to the players he believes in them. Blough believes Johnson’s creativity feeds into this approach.
Campbell may be in his own class as a public speaker. Human Red Bull.
But Johnson is no slouch.
Nobody was quite sure what to expect before his OC days, though knew he helped lead T.J. Hockensen to the Pro Bowl. Blough calls the OC a “dynamic” communicator in front of the room, adding that players naturally gravitate toward him.
“You see how he prepares for all of his meetings,” Blough says. “There’s no stone left unturned when it comes to this. I’m really proud to see what he’s built. He’s the best I’ve been around.”
Everything plotted on a tablet is the easy part for owners. There’s no questioning Johnson’s ability to lead a high-scoring offense. Hypothetically, he should fully maximize the gifts of Herbert or Young or whoever his new team drafts. But there’s so much more to coaching an NFL team. Ryans and Steichen are changing their respective franchises from within. It’s not easy to find your voice. Even if you do — and win — the NFL has a funny way of knocking you down. Brian Daboll’s injury-ravaged New York Giants are 5-11. They’ve allowed 83 sacks, the second-most in NFL history. At 14.9 points per game, they’re also in danger of finishing under 15 ppg for the first time since 1979.
Daboll was also the Coach of the Year last season. Fortunes can flip the wrong way in a hurry, too.
Right now, Dan Campbell is full proof of what works in 2024.
The race for his offensive coordinator begins Monday.