Allen Park — He smiled, he laughed, he made jokes about “Game of Thrones.” And here’s your spoiler alert: Kerryon Johnson doesn’t believe in spoiler alerts.
That’s good, because the Lions’ new offense isn’t hiding its intentions, and Johnson isn’t hiding his excitement. This is the shift the Lions have periodically attempted, but not as strongly as they are now, not with a running back as complete as Johnson.
When the season begins in four months, Matthew Stafford still will be a focal point, obviously. But if the plan under Matt Patricia and new coordinator Darrell Bevell goes as expected, Johnson will become a much bigger cog. Without malice, and with sound football sense, the Lions are determined to shift some responsibility from their 10-year quarterback, coming off a poor season, to the running game. Oh, we’ve heard it before, but this time they mean it, and they have the means to do it.
Johnson, the second-year, second-round back from Auburn, missed the final six games last season because of a sprained knee, and the offense immediately withered. It took GM Bob Quinn a couple years to put together some semblance of a running game, and it was developing nicely before Johnson got hurt. To make this offense work, and help Stafford be more effective, the Lions can’t get caught short again.
They signed free-agent back C.J. Anderson from the Rams. They signed one solid tight end, Jesse James, and drafted another, T.J. Hockenson, touted as a premier blocker and receiver. They added another hulking tight end, Isaac Nauta, in the seventh round. The offensive line hasn’t yet replaced the retired T.J. Lang, but the new T.J. will help.
In the middle of this seismic shift stands Johnson, who sounds confident and comfortable with anything thrown at him. He knows what Bevell did in seven seasons as the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator, wearing down defenses with Marshawn Lynch. Seattle led the league in rushing one year and finished in the top five three other times.
“Obviously that’s good news for me,” Johnson said Thursday during offseason workouts. “But we’re a complete team, trying to be a complete offense.”
'We're going to run the football'
Seems easy enough to understand, but the Lions have long been ridiculously lopsided, hoping Stafford could wing them down the field. He’s too erratic to be consistently effective, and there’s no shame in admitting that. The shame is if the team doesn’t try to compensate.
Quinn and Patricia have talked repeatedly about beefing up the trenches and running the ball. In his 10 games as a rookie, Johnson showed what he could do, rushing for 641 yards (5.4 per carry), catching 32 passes and recording the team’s first 100-yard individual rushing effort in four years.
Rogers, Wojo and Niyo offer their final thoughts on the Lions' 2019 draft class. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
At the time he went down during a 20-19 victory over Carolina on Nov. 18, Johnson was ninth in the NFL in rushing. After the injury, the Lions lost four of five and finished 6-10, and if they needed more evidence of Johnson’s value, there it was.
Bevell doesn’t sound like a guy who needs more evidence.
“We’re going to run the football and we’re going to run it really well, but we want to make sure we’re doing all different kinds of things, and accentuating what our players do well,” Bevell said at a fan forum after getting hired. “When you look at the running back, with Kerryon, that’s a great start. You’ve got (Kenny) Golladay and (Marvin) Jones — two big, long receivers outside. And you have to have a quarterback to win in this league, and we have a good one to be able to start there.”
It has always started with Stafford, and always ended without a playoff victory. Now the Lions have another place to start, and from Johnson’s rugged running style to his buoyant personality, they might have something special here.
When last season ended, Johnson didn’t bask in anything. Instead, he said he was mad he wasn’t able to stay healthy, which was the concern coming out of college. He battled nagging injuries at Auburn but still carried the ball 285 times his senior season for 1,391 yards and was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
The rookie wall
Last offseason, Johnson was training for the combine, for testing drills that determine how high you get drafted. It worked, and the Lions traded up eight spots to take him.
Now, he’s spending the offseason doing real football things, learning yet another offense, getting stronger. His goal is to make it through the full 17-week season (and maybe longer), and if the Lions load him up as expected, stamina will be important.
Did he hit the classic rookie wall at some point last season?
“The rookie wall hit me, like, in fall camp, bro,” Johnson said. “Going through preseason games, I’m like, golly, we haven’t even started yet. It’s long, but at the same time, it went by fast. I get to come to work in sweat pants and shirts, get to play a game I’ve been playing since I was 5 years old. I don’t have to sit in a cubicle, no spread sheets, no nothing. I like to have fun with this.”
Uh, we can tell. When the Lions drafted Hockenson at No. 8, Johnson hopped on Twitter to welcome his new teammate in the most endearing way possible.
“Hey man just your friendly RB here,” Johnson wrote. “Soo ya know if you just block someone in the opposite color jersey we can be the bestest friends ever.”
He joked he’s still waiting for a response from the Iowa rookie. It’s probably difficult for people to keep up with Johnson, who has charisma and energy that you hope doesn’t get beaten out of him. Patricia likes things buttoned up, but he also needs to loosen up, and letting Johnson loose is one way to do it.
Johnson doesn’t have any idea how many carries he’ll get, and doesn’t sound a bit worried about it.
“I try to prepare every game like I’m gonna get 30 carries,” he said. “So if you get only eight, you’re like, wow, OK, I’m ready to get back out there next week and the next week. Obviously (30 carries) is not realistic unless you’re like Ezekiel Elliott, but that’s the kind of mindset I go in with.”
Everyone’s watching him now, more than ever. And if he’s as comfortable on the field as he is at the podium, he won’t be the only one having fun.
He said he’s become a huge “Game of Thrones” fan and went crazy running around his room after Sunday’s episode. He also let slip a little detail that might have violated the unwritten code of silence, a code he doesn’t believe in.
“I don’t care, I spoiled it,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll spoil it again too.”
Who knows how this season — on the field or on the show — will end. But Johnson will have plenty to say about it, one way or another.