If Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson wants to call plays, there’s just one simple task he has to accomplish.
“I would say this,” coach Dan Campbell said Thursday, “the first preseason game, if we put up 85 points, I’m going to name him right there. I’m going to walk off the field — 84 might do it, too. ”
So no pressure, Ben.
“I’d better start game-planning right now,” Johnson said in mid-pretend-stride off the podium when he was told about the 85-point requirement.
For the record, Campbell said he likely won’t make the decision on whether he or Johnson will call plays until we’re closer to the start of the season. Campbell relieved Anthony Lynn of play-calling duties midway through last season. During organized team activities this spring, Johnson has been calling plays and handling the offense, which has benefitted Campbell.
“That way I can keep my eyes on the players and what we’re doing on offense, defense and special teams,” Campbell said. “So that’s what I’m trying to focus on right now and we’ll just kind of take it as it comes.”
When pressed about what he truly needs to see out of Johnson to anoint him as the play-caller, Campbell revealed the truth behind his hesitancy.
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“I just want to take it as it comes and see how he goes with it,” he said, “and see how he handles running the offense, doing what I need to have done on my end and kind of my viewpoint and see how the quarterbacks are and just everything, and then go from there.
“I think you guys know this: I’m a gut guy. So I’m going to trust my gut to make that decision when the time’s right.”
This all boils down to the real reason for Campbell’s delay. In fact, it boils down to one word: trust.
Trust is at the heart of every symbiotic working relationship, but especially between a quarterback and his play-caller. Remember Matthew Stafford yelling “trust me!” on the sidelines during a 2019 tie at Arizona? Campbell must trust that Johnson will work well with quarterback Jared Goff.
For the offense to work its best, the coordinator and quarterback must be synchronized and in complete harmony. The Lions are still a rebuilding team, a mediocre team. Even with a softer schedule, they’re going to be punching above their weight fairly often, which means there’s no room for the kind of miscommunication or dysfunction that led to Lynn’s demotion and eventual exit.
But Campbell isn’t the only one who needs to be convinced of trust. Owner Sheila Hamp also must trust in Campbell’s ability to hire the right assistants. Campbell can’t hire his second OC in two years and get it wrong again. Let’s not forget Campbell is still very much an unproven head coach. How can an owner trust she hired the right guy to move this team forward if he keeps replacing one of his top assistants?
Johnson mentioned his previous play-calling experience in practice as a Miami Dolphins assistant from 2012-18. I asked him if he’s confident he could call play right now, or if it’s a role he needs to grow into.
“Honestly, I’m confident I’m ready,” he said. “I really am. Once again, you’ve got to be put in those situations to truly know. But our game-planning process is so detailed and precise that I think actually on game day it takes care of itself because you know exactly what you want, where you want the football. It’s really just reading the (play-call) sheet, in my opinion.
“The 5% that gets hard is the end-of-the-game, end-of-the-half situations where the clock is running, you’ve got to think quickly. Those are actually the situations I have experience in from my time in Miami doing that in practice with some of our guys. So I know what pitfalls potentially there are. It’s a learning experience, there’s no doubt about it. But it’s one that I certainly feel confident about.”
Johnson’s answer is impressive. He was confident but also realistic about the challenges of the job in crunch time, which almost any play-caller would admit is a constant challenge. Right, Pete Carroll?
I actually feel bad for Johnson. He seems like the summer intern who’s trying really hard to impress his boss and get that full-time gig at the company. Maybe he can curry favor with Campbell by plying him with doughnuts and coffee. Psst, Ben, don’t forget the boss’ preferred Starbucks order: Two venti Pike Place roasts with two shots of espresso in each. Just by reading that sentence, you’ve absorbed 500 milligrams of caffeine.
But Johnson might not need to suck up to his coach. It seems like he already has a pretty good idea of who he has to sweeten up.
“I’ve got a really strong relationship with Jared right now,” Johnson said. “One of my top priorities, personally, is to help him have the best season of his career.
“One thing that we’ve done is included him a lot in what we’re trying to do schematically, and so we spent some time this offseason watching more of the stuff he did a few years ago in LA and how we can incorporate some of that, while also challenging him to take the next step in some areas of improvement for him as a player as well.”
Are you kidding? Can you imagine your new manager coming in and saying he wants to help you have the best year of your career? And he wants your input?
“We ended up — early on here in the spring — we ended up sitting down at length for a few days,” Johnson said quietly and succinctly about how he and Goff began to discuss the offense. “We had a good bonding experience, if you will.”
Calling an NFL offense is a big job. So is making the decision on who is entrusted with that responsibility. Campbell knows this, which is why he’s right to take his time and wait to hear what his gut will finally tell him, like an intestinal Zarathustra digesting 40 ounces of rocket-fuel coffee and speaking the truth about trust.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.