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How Ben Johnson Fixed Jared Goff and Became the Next Big Thing in NFL Coaching

The Detroit Lions’ unheralded offensive coordinator had an unlikely rise to becoming Detroit’s play caller. Now, he’s crafting one of the league’s most interesting offenses while resurrecting Goff’s career in the process.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Detroit Lions’ Ben Johnson is the third Ben Johnson on the list of results offered by Google when you search “Ben Johnson.” His Wikipedia page comes after the actor Ben Johnson, who died in 1996, and the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson. The actor was a world-champion rodeo cowboy, Wikipedia tells me, and the track star was the world’s fastest man in 1987 and was famously stripped of his gold medal from the 1988 Olympics for doping. In other words, the NFL’s Ben Johnson suffers from stiff competition.

It’s a mundane search engine ranking for an NFL coach, not that name recognition actually matters. But if that’s how famous the Lions’ Ben Johnson is now, after a breakout season as a first-time play caller in 2022 and three head-coaching interviews this offseason, imagine what an unknown he was before last season—when even he wasn’t sure whether he’d be calling the Lions’ plays.

He would. He ended up calling all of them. They were really, really good.

The Lions offense was one of the best in the league—third in expected points added per play, fifth in total DVOA. It was top five in the league in points per drive, joining the Chiefs, Eagles, Bills, and Bengals—some of the best offensive teams in football last year. In one season under Johnson, the Lions produced more Pro Bowlers on offense (three) than they had in any season since 1971.

If you really wanted to, you could force some credit elsewhere, like sophomore season improvements for Amon-Ra St. Brown and Penei Sewell, or head coach Dan Campbell’s fourth-down aggressiveness, or a bounce-back season for veteran quarterback Jared Goff. But I know what I saw: Ben Johnson, this unknown football coach, is the one who pulled it all together.

I wanted to try to figure out how Johnson did it. Not just because nobody really saw it coming—but also because if he can coordinate a top offense again, the Lions will likely become a playoff team for only the fourth time in the 2000s. And if this is repeatable, then Johnson has the most valuable thing in current NFL coaching circles: the ability to win with a solid but unspectacular quarterback.

So: How did he do it last year? And can he do it again?

“We’re mutts,” Johnson said with a grin on a sunny morning in Detroit after a recent training camp practice, referring to the Lions coaching staff that Campbell has built. It’s a group loaded with ex-players—from the colossal Campbell and the grizzly Aaron Glenn to Kelvin Sheppard and Dré Bly (who both look like they could strap on pads tomorrow). Johnson is an unassuming figure, but he brings an intensity that makes him fit right in. He speaks clearly, emphatically, confidently, no “umms” or “ahhs.”

Johnson’s football DNA is a mix of schemes and philosophies, and maybe that’s why he was such an unknown when he embarked on his first season as a play caller last year. Many offensive coaches these days are, to continue Johnson’s metaphor, purebreds. Early in their careers, they become attached to a certain offensive system and never leave it; Johnson’s path wasn’t as linear—and you can tell he’s proud of that.

From 2012 to 2018, Johnson was a coach for the Miami Dolphins—and during those seven seasons, he primarily coached under three different offensive coordinators and play callers. First, Mike Sherman, a father of the West Coast offense. Then, Bill Lazor, one of the West Coast’s sons, with some Chip Kelly flair. Finally, Adam Gase, a Mike Martz disciple, who was also heavily influenced by his time coaching Peyton Manning in Denver.

Sherman, Lazor, Gase—that’s only half the story. The other half is the positions that Johnson coached while riding that schematic roller coaster in Miami. He was a low-level offensive assistant working with quarterbacks under Sherman and Lazor. When Dan Campbell was promoted to interim head coach during the 2015 Dolphins season, Johnson took over as the tight ends coach. Gase stepped in and retained Johnson, moving him to the role of assistant wide receivers coach.

Three systems, three positions in seven years. This is the rearing of a coaching mutt, not a system purebred. Here, there was no methodical perfecting of one system, no sharpening of a blade by grinding away all but the finest edge. This was cross-pollination, the interweaving of schematic fabrics—the making of sturdier stuff.

This, of course, was terrible for the Dolphins. Their offenses were bad and bad and bad again. But it was good for Johnson. It showed him not just what different offenses could look like, but also the things that could make them fail—the lack of clarity, a hazy vision. And it all culminated on the day he was handed the keys to Jared Goff’s career.

You can’t really tell the story of an offensive coordinator without telling the story of his quarterback. But you know Goff’s story. He was the first pick of the 2016 NFL draft and then looked like a consummate bust for the Rams—who had spent a king’s ransom to acquire him. Goff’s career was resuscitated by a new head coach in Sean McVay. McVay was that sharp blade—a Shanahan disciple who had distilled an offense that was so pure anyone could run it. Just press the outside zone button a few times, then press the play-action button and put seven points on the board.

Goff, who famously had to hustle to the line of scrimmage so that McVay could help him interpret the defense before the quarterback-coach radio connection expired in his helmet, was a passenger on the offense, not the driver. When the wheel of the offense was thrust into Goff’s unwilling and unprepared hands during Super Bowl LIII and he looked helpless against Bill Belichick’s Patriots defense, the end of Goff’s tenure in L.A. began. McVay’s QB-proof system no longer worked; he became openly frustrated with Goff’s struggles whenever Goff was asked to do more, and after the 2020 season—the worst of Goff’s career under McVay—the Rams shipped Goff to Detroit for Matthew Stafford. The talent gap between the two quarterbacks was so vast, and Goff’s contract so big, that the Rams had to include two first-round picks to make the deal work.

When Goff struggled in his first season with the Lions just as he had in his final season with the Rams, it seemed like his story—the story of a system quarterback—was over.

But Johnson is rewriting Goff’s story. Goff is good again—and because he was previously only ever good in McVay’s system, it’s easy to assume that that must be what Johnson’s running in Detroit. It would be a neat and tidy plot. But it’s wrong.

Remember those easy buttons in McVay’s system? Outside zone and play-action aren’t as prominently featured on the Lions’ dashboard. In each season from 2017 to 2020, the Rams were either first or second in wide-zone rushing attempts. In Detroit last year, the Lions were 15th. From those wide-zone runs come under-center play-action fakes; those dropbacks comprised 33 percent of Goff’s total pass attempts in 2019 and 2020 (as far back as we have data). In 2022, just 23 percent of Goff’s dropbacks came from under-center play-action looks.

Johnson didn’t fix Goff by relying on the McVay stuff. He fixed Goff by enhancing it.

Let’s watch this example. Here’s one of the most common boot concepts you’ll see in today’s NFL: a three-level flood off of wide-zone action. We can find plenty of examples of the Rams running it and the Lions running it with Goff. The under-center zone fake pulls the defense in one direction, and three routes spring toward the opposite sideline as the quarterback wheels into empty space.

This play is foundational to the McVay offense—a simple, effective wrinkle in their most common run. But because it is foundational to the McVay offense, defenses have spent several years figuring out how to defend it.

“When [Goff] first got here, he would ask for more movement, more keepers,” Johnson said. “They’re the simplest plays, and the Rams made a lot of hay on that. But teams have caught up to matching those familiar patterns. So we’ve had to evolve a little bit.”

Their evolutions are many, and they compound one another. Here’s outside zone, but this time with a fullback lead blocking—something you rarely saw in the McVay offense, but that seems appropriate for a Campbell-led team.

And here’s that fullback again, this time working to the back side of zone flow for a predetermined cutback from the running back. This run is called windback, and again, we saw the Rams do this—just not really with a fullback.

Now, what you won’t see the Rams do much is run windback with a tackle. In fact, you probably won’t see anyone do this but the Lions. But when you have an athlete like Sewell at tackle, you can do this:

And then, because you love running behind a pulling Sewell, you figure … why not just line Sewell up as a wide receiver, put him in motion, and follow him on a running play?

And finally, it’s like you can almost hear Johnson saying it quietly to himself while watching film deep into the night: “... what if we threw it to him?”

While these wrinkles are fun, they are still wrinkles of the familiar McVay offense. Make this play look like that play. Use a strong running game to create easy passing opportunities. In an attempt to stay forever ahead of defenses, Johnson’s wrinkles are wackier than McVay’s—but this is still a familiar process, and are foundational to the system Goff grew up in.

But that’s simply the foundation. In a three-day offseason mind meld last offseason, Goff and Johnson spent the first two days going over aspects of the Rams offense that Goff liked and concepts that Johnson didn’t fully understand. But the third day was spent on true evolution, on what Johnson’s career had taught him—not just new wrinkles, but different systems, different teaching paradigms, new ideas grafted onto existing philosophies. The first two days were spent on the Rams offenses of the past; the third day was spent on starting to design the Lions offense of the future.

“For the most part, that’s all Jared knew as he was growing up in this league,” Johnson says of McVay’s offense. “So I think it’s been a little eye-opening to him to find out that there isn’t necessarily a right way or wrong way. It was just what McVay believed in.”

The first and biggest evolution of the Lions offense in 2022 was in the running game. There’s not a blocking scheme under the sun that the Lions do not run. According to Pro Football Focus, the Lions ranked fifth in their rate of running power, sixth in their rate of running counter, second in their rate of running trap, and second in number of snaps with an extra offensive lineman.

Remember those runs with Sewell as a lead blocker? Those aren’t by accident. Sewell’s 31 pulls last season were fourth most among tackles leaguewide. “We have some tackles that can do some unique things, and we try to highlight that,” Johnson said. “That’s part of who we are. Other teams might showcase their skill players a little bit more. We try to showcase our offensive line.”

Johnson puts his money where his mouth is on this topic. Veteran offensive tackle Taylor Decker told me that after the offense installs its run game every week, each offensive lineman gets handed the run sheet and is asked to circle his five favorite runs. Then they hand their sheet back to Johnson. Guess which runs get called on Sunday?

That diversity in the running game affected the passing game in ways Goff didn’t experience in L.A. “We have a myriad of protections that mirror things that we do in the running game,” passing game coordinator Tanner Engstrand said. By putting extra bodies in the box, designating plenty of pullers, and using tight bunch formations, the Lions can easily get a sixth (or seventh) blocker into the protection.

Goff was accustomed to McVay’s voice in his headset when he got to the line of scrimmage; in Detroit, Johnson calls the play, but Goff makes the protections and checks at the line with help from veteran center Frank Ragnow. “The most growth that we’ve seen as a staff is protections,” Johnson said of Goff. “He’s able to recognize pressure and help.”

Pre- and post-snap optionality are built into the Lions offense now. Goff can have upward of five play calls to choose from at the line when the Lions are in particular packages; Johnson tells me that some of his goofy designer plays won’t be initially called, but Goff can summon them once he sees how the defense lines up. An example? This splitback run the Lions used against the Eagles in Week 1, a play that Andy Reid cribbed from Johnson almost six months later in Super Bowl LVII.

Optionality is an enormous part of the Lions’ late-down passing game. Johnson and Goff love option routes—they’d build the whole offense out of them if they could. Using bunches, shifts, and motions, Johnson hunted for favorable matchups in 2022 for slot receivers like St. Brown and running backs like D’Andre Swift (who has since been traded to the Eagles) in the passing game. Because receivers on option routes can break outside, break inside, or settle down between zone defenders—so long as Goff and his receivers are on the same page—those routes are extremely difficult to defend.

That coordination is seemingly the secret sauce of this Lions offense. Everyone is on the same page, the same paragraph, down to the same word. To execute such a great variety of runs, the offensive line has to be in perfect sync at the line. Do we trap with the guard against this front, or with the tackle? If the linebacker scrapes, who comes off the double? Now protections. If we pull a guard on this play-action, who does the rest of the line point to? Fold the receivers in. If that blitzer comes, does the line pick him up, or does the receiver become hot? Now concepts. Does the defense have the right look against that bunch formation, or is that a suspicious alignment? Oop, wait—Goff just changed the play at the line. Let’s start the process again.

At the eye of this swirling storm is Johnson. “Clear, clean, and concise,” Engstrand said of Johnson’s in-game demeanor. “He doesn’t get emotionally hijacked. He’s just …” Engstrand pauses and holds out a flat hand, palm facing the ground. “He’s here.”

Watch Johnson on the sideline for a practice, and it’s clear what Engstrand is talking about. Johnson does not celebrate, bemoan, gesticulate, or react. After Goff hits rookie tight end Sam LaPorta for a touchdown, the rest of the offense floods the end zone to celebrate. Johnson just walks away, eyes on his play sheet. Even as the first-team offense jogs off the field, Johnson does not speak to Goff. He’s getting ready to call plays for the second team.

Clear, clean, and concise. Only when that mantra is threatened does Johnson emote. In this particular practice, a two-minute drill began to go awry—a designed play failed to stop the clock, and the offense didn’t get up to the line with Johnson’s desired urgency. Johnson takes three steps off the sideline, screaming. What he just saw was not clean, and sloppiness is unacceptable. Johnson folds his arms and shakes his head even as the offense recovers and scores a few plays later, getting up in Goff’s face the second the quarterback makes it to the sideline.

Johnson knows that details make or break offenses in this league, not because of the ones he’s seen made, but because of the ones he’s seen broken—from the seven disappointing years in Miami with different systems to Goff’s first year in Detroit. “I’ve seen it fail a lot,” Johnson says. “I’ve tried to avoid any of the pitfalls I’ve seen in my coaching career. From the communication standpoint, the rest of the coaches understand exactly what we’re trying to do. And they’re able to get that to the players.”

“It’s explained exactly how we want it … and the level of detail at which we want things done. It’s just …” Engstrand pauses again, like he’s just realizing it for the first time. “It’s just elite, I guess you can say. It’s so, so good.”

I’ve come to my own realization. Johnson was an unknown before last season because he was stuck coaching for struggling offenses during his developmental years. And we don’t expect good coaches to come from bad offenses. We expect good coaches to produce successful teams, and accordingly, we look to successful teams to find good coaches. It’s the coordinators of the Super Bowl teams that get poached for head-coaching jobs. And if not from the teams that were successful, then from the systems that have been—especially on the offensive side of the ball. If you’re an NFL team owner with an open head-coaching job, the simple answer seems to be snapping a branch off the Shanahan-McVay tree, snapping a branch off the Andy Reid tree, or finding some guy who was just coaching January football.

This past offseason, only one offensive coach interviewed for a head-coaching job who didn’t fall into one of those three buckets. It was Johnson, who interviewed with the Colts, the Texans, and the Panthers (for whom Johnson was reportedly the leading candidate), before he bowed out of the head-coaching cycle to stay in Detroit and keep coordinating the offense for Goff and the Lions.

It’s no surprise that Johnson got those interviews. When someone who was a quality control coach in 2019 coordinates one of the league’s best offenses three years later, everyone in the NFL will want to figure out who he is and how it happened and whether he can do it again. That’s what I set out to discover too.

From what I can figure, Johnson had exactly what both Goff and the McVay offense needed: an infusion of creativity and a willingness to change. He hadn’t yet been to the peak of the NFL’s mountaintop and didn’t come from a system that had dominated the league; he was just a guy who had been at the bottom of the NFL pit before and knew his way out.

Johnson’s at the bottom of the pit no longer. Welcome to the top of the mountain, where defensive coordinators spend all offseason brewing remedies for your particular offensive poison, where the premium on innovation becomes even greater. It’s one thing to innovate, and another to sustain. That is the challenge Johnson faces as he steps out of the unknown and into the known.