Detroit Lions tight end coach Ben Johnson has received praise from his coworkers all season, but that has especially ramped up as of late. Out the bye week, head coach Dan Campbell—who worked alongside Johnson with the Dolphins—decided that he would be more involved in the team’s passing game, as Campbell took over play calling duties. Though things got to a rocky start out of the bye, the passing offense appeared to make some significant strides over the past two weeks.
But Johnson’s increased role in the offense hadn’t really been publicly and clearly defined by anyone. On Friday, Johnson put it in his own words.
“From my own side of it, it’s maybe a little bit more hands-on with a couple different position groups, with the receivers, quarterbacks, and running backs,” Johnson said. “It’s everything. Probably a little bit more expanded from that regard, but still focusing more than anything on the tight end position.”
As everyone on the coaching staff has said, Johnson continues to preach that the offensive framework has always been a collaborative process, but this being in the first year of a new regime, everyone was still working out where they fit in properly.
“Just talking with coach Campbell when he took this job and as he was building his staff, he was just talking about a staff of each coach having a strength and a weakness and finding that right balance,” Johnson said. “Some of the things that I bring to the table, other guys may not. It’s just finding the right rhythm and flow and how we can work off each other from that way.”
While it may seem strange that Johnson is the guy who has seemingly carved out a larger role in this offense, it shouldn’t be. Not only has Johnson, a former quarterback himself, worked as a coach or assistant of every skill position group at the NFL level, but he has also brushed shoulders with a lot of bright offensive minds.
Johnson says one of his strengths is his diverse football background. Though he’s only 35 years old, this is Year 10 as an NFL coach for him. He was under Bill Lazor for two years in Miami, who brought a Chip Kelly style of offense that helps him collaborate with running backs coach Duce Staley (who helped run that system in Philadelphia). He spent another two years with Mike Sherman, who taught him West Coast Offense concepts. Adam Gase brought the Peyton Manning/Jim Bob Cooter-style into focus for him.
Coaching legend Al Saunders taught Johnson that you can only teach what you know, but at this point in his career, Johnson knows a heck of a lot.
“From each guy, I’ve been able to pick something up, both good and bad, things I would like to emulate and things I wouldn’t,” Johnson said. “I think that’s really helped me in terms of expanding my mind, expanding some concepts, maybe, from the passing game, from that regard.”
You may think that Johnson, who graduated with a B.S. in both mathematics and computer science, would take that analytical approach to coaching. But the Lions tight end coach says that it’s his family’s background in teaching that he leans on more in this profession.
“My dad was an educator, my mom was a teacher, my sister is an assistant principal at my high school,” Johnson said. “So I think just growing up in that environment has helped out more than anything in terms of the teaching aspect of coaching.”
Obviously, minds start to wonder what the Lions’ offensive coaching power structure will look like next year. With play calling stripped of him, will offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn stick around? If not, is Johnson a candidate to potentially take over? Or is an official “passing game coordinator” title in his future?
“I think any coach in this league would like to climb the ladder,” Johnson said. “But it was funny, I said to Duce earlier this year, ‘Shoot, if you could tell me I could be tight ends coach in this league the next 20 years, sign me up.’ I love coaching those guys.”