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The Commanders Are Not Mad About Ben Johnson. Please Don’t Put in the Newspaper That They Got Mad.

Washington has its new head coach in Dan Quinn. So why is so much reporting focused on the man who turned the Commanders down?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you’ve been paying any attention to the NFL over the past week, you’ve surely heard about the tiff between the Washington Commanders and Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. After the season ended, Washington had eyes on Johnson, the hot offensive mind of the moment, for its head-coaching vacancy. But because of league rules, the Commanders had to watch the coaching carousel turn and wait for the Lions’ postseason run to end before they could hire or even perform an in-person interview with Johnson. Finally, on the Tuesday after the Lions lost to the 49ers in the NFC championship game, Washington’s executives boarded a flight to Detroit. But while the Commanders brass was in the air, Johnson informed them that he wouldn’t be interviewing or taking the job. He’d be staying with the Lions.

What followed has been a media meltdown of epic proportions. First, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Johnson was never a “head-coaching lock” and that his “asking price spooked some teams.” Minutes later, Schefter contradicted his own report, saying that Johnson didn’t get a raise to stay in Detroit, “proving that money is not Johnson’s biggest motivation.”

Two days later, the Commanders hired former Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to be their head coach. That should’ve been that; Johnson has the job he wants, and the Commanders have their coach of the future. Only … this story has not gone away. Multiple reports in the days since have stated Johnson did not interview well. On Monday, Schefter went on The Pat McAfee Show to throw more barbs Johnson’s way, shouting—yes, shouting!—about how Johnson should have done the Commanders the courtesy of wasting their time with an hourslong interview when he’d already made up his mind about not wanting the job.

Johnson’s side has been a bit quieter, although we did get one report from ESPN’s Jenna Laine stating that the Lions coordinator was “turned off” by the Commanders’ new owners. Laine tweeted that Johnson believes the new ownership group, which is led by Philadelphia 76ers managing partner Josh Harris, is full of “basketball guys.”

This all culminated in a Monday story in The Athletic that purported to tell “How the Commanders landed on Dan Quinn following an ‘outrageous’ head-coaching search,” but that mostly served as a forum for more shots at Johnson. The piece, written by Ben Standig and Dianna Russini, called Johnson:

  • a “newbie power broker”
  • a “perceived wunderkind option”
  • “commitment-phobic”
  • “not ... ready to rumble”
  • a “false idol”
  • “a coach who prefers holing up in his office, coming up with game plans and playing with mad scientist vibes rather than leading a locker room”

The piece also cited Johnson’s “hefty compensation demands for the second-year coordinator” and “head-coaching apprehension” before concluding that Johnson “bail[ed]” on the Commanders and “screwed” them. It included quotes from anonymous sources who called Johnson’s decision to pull out of the job “Outrageous. Simply outrageous,” and said Johnson was “walloped emotionally” after the 34-31 loss to San Francisco. The piece also praised the “competence, vision and sanity” of Washington’s front office and said that the team “already conquered competitors in the general manager market by landing [former 49ers executive Adam] Peters.” Apparently Johnson’s reputation, per one source cited in the piece, is “ruin[ed].”

For those unfamiliar with how the sausage gets made in NFL media, McAfee pulled the curtain back during Schefter’s rant on his show. “Schefty is plugged with the Commanders, we need to remember that,” McAfee said of his ESPN coworker. “You are actually giving their side of the whole thing.” Schefter’s response? “What’s the other side?”

Washington’s weeklong temper tantrum has ostensibly been aimed at showing how not mad the Commanders are that Johnson spurned them. They’re just fine—happily moving forward with Quinn as they “recalibrate” the franchise (do not call it a “rebuild”). But even this line of defense is confused. To hear the Commanders (or at least various NFL insiders) tell it, they missed out on a coach who doesn’t interview well, demands too much money, and can’t lead a locker room. Why all the hoopla for what sounds like a bullet dodged? Why were they even flying to Detroit for an interview with Johnson in the first place?

Instead, the past week’s confused media war is proving three things. The first is that the Commanders’ interest in Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn as a head-coaching candidate was likely a sham. The Commanders were flying to Detroit not only to talk to Johnson, but to interview both Lions coordinators. Washington leadership was reportedly “eager to meet with” Glenn, who has built a reputation as a strong leader with the Lions. So Johnson’s cancellation of the meeting with the Commanders shouldn’t have meant that the team wasted a flight or any time at all, as they still got to talk with a coach who was purportedly one of their top candidates. Yet the more that is leaked about how Washington feels about Johnson, the more it seems the team’s interview with Glenn, who is Black, was perhaps just a convenient way for the Commanders to check off the NFL’s Rooney Rule policy, which requires teams to conduct in-person interviews with at least two external minority and/or female candidates for head-coaching and general manager roles.

Even in the weeks leading up to the Commanders’ trip to Detroit, reports consistently spotlighted Johnson as the more attractive head-coaching candidate, with most of the attention focused on him while Glenn was listed as just another name in a pool of applicants. These kinds of extra hoops and silly games are nothing new for Black coaches, but this NFL hiring cycle—not just for Glenn, but also for coaches like David Shaw—was particularly brazen.

The second thing this saga is proving is that Washington isn’t really excited about Quinn. The former Falcons head coach went 48-45 over six seasons in Atlanta, from 2015 to 2020, and spent the past three seasons putting together solid but not elite defenses in Dallas. Quinn’s hire feels rather uninspiring, as he resembles Commanders coaching predecessor Ron Rivera in that he has past head-coaching experience but not a ton of success on his résumé. (Dallas interviewed Rivera for its defensive coordinator vacancy, so the two men may swap places.) After Johnson, the team also reportedly had strong interest in former Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who chose the Seattle job over Washington. That would make Quinn the team’s third choice. A week of media members spilling more ink about Johnson than Quinn—along with the fact that the Commanders could have hired Quinn two weeks before all of this transpired but chose to wait—sure seems to suggest that.

And the final takeaway of Washington’s media meltdown is that this front office is still plenty toxic. Dan Snyder is gone. Harris—who also owns the 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils—is in. But there is still a stink on this organization. On paper, the Commanders job should be very attractive. In addition to the new ownership group, Washington owns the no. 2 pick in the upcoming draft, giving a new head coach the potential to select his quarterback of the future. The team has some pass-catching talent and some quality defenders. A month ago, this very website called the Washington vacancy “the best open job in the league.”

But as Johnson—and perhaps, Macdonald—understood, a head-coaching interview is a two-way street. A team doesn’t just interview a coach; a coach also susses out whether a franchise is the right fit for them. There aren’t many coaches who get multiple shots at this. Fail somewhere, and you may find that your career as an NFL head coach is over for good. What does it say about this new Washington ownership group that both Johnson and Macdonald looked elsewhere, and the Commanders had to instead turn to a retread?

Did Johnson really do anything wrong? It’s hard to parse exactly what happened here through all the anonymously sourced reports and leaks. Perhaps Johnson did unfairly lead the Commanders on, only to pull the rug out from under them at the last minute. But we know Johnson never gave any kind of commitment to Washington because on January 29, Schefter reported that Johnson to the Commanders was “not a slam dunk” as many believed. The next day, a Tuesday, was when Johnson pulled out of consideration for the job.

Remember: This was the Tuesday after the NFC championship game, just some 24 to 48 hours after Detroit’s season had ended. If Johnson was so focused on the game plan for that matchup that he hadn’t adequately considered how attractive his head-coaching opportunities were … well, isn’t that the type of focus on the present that a team should want in a coach? The timeline makes it sound as if Johnson had both feet firmly planted in Detroit as the team geared up for its biggest game in a generation, instead of having one foot out the door. It’s tough to criticize him for that.

And per Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, Johnson’s decision wasn’t easy. St. Brown said Johnson called him early Tuesday morning to tell St. Brown he had unfinished business in Detroit. Johnson apparently “couldn’t sleep” that night before making his decision.

Following everything that’s happened since that decision, can you blame Johnson for preferring to stay in Detroit? Look at the chaos that has followed since he declined the Washington job. It sure seems to clarify what Johnson may have meant by calling the Commanders front office a group of “basketball guys”—relentlessly leaking rumors to the media is some true basketball guy shit. It’s also the type of practice that could put the franchise back in coaching purgatory in the near future.