Ben Johnson, in running for offensive coordinator, helped Lions find their 'rhythm'
Mobile, Ala. — Detroit Lions offensive coordinator candidate Ben Johnson is quick to shrug off the praise he's received for his role in the team's offensive improvements down the stretch last season. In fact, he almost seems embarrassed by it, at times.
"You know, I would probably go so far as to say I don't know how creative it is, personally," Johnson said when assessing his role in play design. "I really don't. Coach (Anthony) Lynn actually said this back in the springtime last year, but the art behind play calling is more so the timing of the play, and not necessarily the play itself.
"The NFL, everyone watches every other, everybody steals plays, there aren't that many new plays that we're seeing week to week," Johnson said. "And so it's really the timing of it, and I think we got in a good groove there — a good rhythm — in the second half of the season, just in terms of hitting those at the right moment, and it paid dividends for us."
Johnson is grateful for the mentors he's had early in his career, including Lynn, the man Johnson is poised to replace if coach Dan Campbell doesn't find a better option while conducting interviews for the vacancy at the Senior Bowl.
"Just over the course of my career, I've been around a number of coordinators," Johnson said. "Mike Sherman, Bill Lazor, Zac Taylor, Adam Gase, Anthony Lynn. I've learned a ton from each and every one of them. I've taken things from every one of those guys, and so I feel like it has helped prepare me for this moment."
It's the knack to recall those teachings, specifics from each unique scheme, and apply them to the talent the Lions currently roster that's been one of Johnson's defining traits. Nearly every week, during preparation for the upcoming opponent, he was reintroducing ideas from his past that were making it into the game plan.
"He's been in the NFL I believe 10 years," quarterback coach Mark Brunell said. "Smart guy with a lot of experience, very creative, and had some good ideas that we added to what we were doing in the second half of the season. He's a great guy, hard worker, it's important to him. He's great to work with. ... I've been learning a lot from Ben Johnson."
Johnson, who played quarterback at the University of North Carolina, worked three years as a grad assistant before joining the Miami Dolphins as a low-level offensive assistant. He ended up spending seven years with the franchise, working with quarterbacks and receivers, while overlapping with Campbell four of those seasons.
Johnson arrived in Detroit ahead of Campbell, serving as a quality-control coach in 2019, prior to taking over the tight end room in 2020. Retained after the team fired Matt Patricia, Campbell unofficially made Johnson the team's passing-game coordinator midseason, coinciding with the head coach taking over play-calling duties from Lynn.
This week, Johnson is getting a trial run at being both a coordinator and play-caller, filling those roles at the Senior Bowl for the American team coached by the Lions.
"An incredible opportunity, an incredible experience, not just getting to meet the players and coach them in the meeting room and on the field, but also with the rest of the coaching staff," Johnson said. "It's been a different dynamic than I'm used to, and one I've thoroughly enjoyed.
"It doesn't matter if you're a quality-control coach or wherever you are on the ladder, you're getting evaluated every day," Johnson said. "That's as a coach and a player. So I've treated it the same as I've always treated every day I go into the office. Eyes are on me, I need to do my job. I owe that to co-workers, I owe that to the players, and you let the chips fall where they may from there. But I haven't really wavered from that in my career so far, and this is just another step in that process."
Johnson didn't acknowledge he's formally interviewed for Detroit's coordinator job, only saying he and Campbell have talked at length on multiple occasions. As for his public pitch for the permanent gig, that's not really Johnson's style. Instead, he readily deferred to Campbell, who he believes will set the tone for the Lions offense, regardless of who holds the coordinator title.
"It's really his vision for it, and having his back with that vision — what he wants to see, where he wants it to go," Johnson said. "I think it really kind of centers there. This is a head-coach-driven team, and that's offense, defense and special teams. Where he wants it to go, we will go, and that of course depends on our personnel and goes on from there."