Detroit Lions turn to the 1 non-former NFL player on offensive staff for help

Detroit Free Press

Dan Campbell turned heads when he put together a staff made up mostly of ex-NFL players, but it has been a career coach who had no initial plans of getting into the business who has helped jumpstart the team’s passing game.

Tight ends coach Ben Johnson has taken on increased responsibilities as a pseudo pass game coordinator the past five weeks.

Johnson described his role Friday as being “maybe a little bit more hands-on with a couple different position groups” while still coaching tight ends. But everyone from Campbell to quarterback Jared Goff has credited him as a key figure in the collaborative process designed to get more out of the Detroit Lions’ languishing offense.

The Lions (1-10-1) are looking for their second straight win Sunday when they play the Denver Broncos (6-6) at Empower Field at Mile High.

“Ben’s been awesome,” Goff said Wednesday. “Ever since I got here, he’s been one the guys that you can kind of rely on as a good voice and understands kind of everything we’re trying to do. Since he’s been in that role, being able to lean on him and asking these questions and having him take some ownership over some stuff has been really cool. He’s a guy who’s got a lot of experience in the quarterback room and applying himself back in his time. But it’s been a lot of fun working with him.”

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Johnson was a walk-on quarterback at North Carolina who fashioned himself as “a math geek” before landing a graduate assistant position at Boston College under his former UNC offensive coordinator, Gary Tranquill, in 2009.

He spent three seasons with the Eagles, the last as tight ends coach, and the past decade as an NFL position coach with the Miami Dolphins and Lions, where he worked with quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends and learned a variety of systems that he says now form the basis for his schematic philosophy.

“I was in Miami and a veteran coach, we had Al Saunders there at one time, and he said, ‘You can only coach what you know,’” Johnson said. “And I think that’s kind of where I benefit is, I’ve been around a lot of different things. It’s been from Bill Lazor, he kind of brought that Chip Kelly system that Duce (Staley) knows really well up in Philly, and the digit system. He was doing the Mike Martz pass game, and then Mike Sherman was more west coast, and then Adam Gase has been more the Peyton Manning offense, the Omaha, Omaha that Jim Bob Cooter had here.

“There’s just been a lot of carryover over the course, so I think as a younger coach it’s just been kind of seeing where things fit, how do you attack coverages, what could go where and this element that we’re in right now, it’s finding what our players do best, which has taken a little bit. It’s taking a little bit and putting in those positions to do some of those concepts.”

Campbell, who played 11 seasons as a tight end with four different NFL teams, was largely praised for building a unique staff when he was hired as Lions coach in January. Seven of the Lions’ full-time assistants have NFL playing experience, including every primary assistant but Johnson on offense.

One concern some NFL observers expressed privately to the Free Press at the time was that configuration left Campbell’s staff short on “idea” guys, coaches like Johnson who spent years learning, designing and studying various systems and coming up with creative ways to implement their ideas.

Asked about his creative process Friday, Johnson, who spent four seasons with Campbell in Miami, joked that “all the best ideas come up in the shower.”

“So if you’re ever lacking you just hop in there and something about that hot water just, and if it’s not coming, you turn on the cold water and then something’s bound to come,” he said. “No, I mean, I think you’re watching tape, you’re watching other teams. You hear a lot of other coaches talk about stealing plays from other teams. I mean, I think that’s probably a regular occurrence, but you see something and it’s, ‘OK, a play off a play and, hey, how can I make this better? How can I fit this for my guys?’ That’s normally where it stems from.”

Campbell described one such think-tank session that led to Brock Wright’s touchdown in last week’s win over the Minnesota Vikings, when the Lions ran four vertical routes out of a two-tight end, two-running back formation that typically signifies they’re running the ball.

Campbell said Johnson suggested motioning fullback Jason Cabinda out of the backfield, and as coaches talked through the play, they decided to pull backside guard Jonah Jackson the same direction to give the call even more of a run feel.

The motion fooled Minnesota’s defense, and Goff threw a perfect pass to Wright down the seam.

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“It takes everybody,” Johnson said. “So we’re trying to show (players) the vision, show them why we have a play in. It’s up to them to bring it to life. And that’s a challenge each week. When you have the quarterback putting the ball in tight windows like he was last week, shoot, man, the sky’s the limit in terms of where we can go.”

For Johnson, the sky may be the limit in terms of where he can go, too.

Campbell is expected to make coaching staff changes this offseason, and Johnson’s work with the passing game could make him a candidate for offensive play caller when Campbell cedes those duties.

Goff had arguably his best performance of the season last week, when he threw for 296 yards and three touchdowns, including the winning score as time expired, and showed more of a willingness to make tight-window throws downfield.

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Goff has expressed trust in Johnson, an important element in any quarterback-play caller relationship, and Johnson acknowledged Friday he hopes to one day have a bigger coaching role.

“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, I said, ‘Shoot, if you could tell me I could be a tight ends coach in this league the next 20 years, sign me up.’ I love coaching those guys. I love the fact that we have a great group right now. You have T.J Hockenson, you got Brock Wright, who’s really coming on. Jason Cabinda’s come over and dabbling into that tight end room and getting better every week. It’s just fun to see, take one player, and see them grow over like the time. So that’s where I have the most joy from and that’s what I love the most in terms of coaching is those relationships and seeing guys get better on a weekly basis.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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