Allen Park — When the Detroit Lions traded for quarterback Jared Goff last year, general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell figuratively handed the veteran quarterback the keys.
The brass wanted to instill a sense of ownership from the jump, but owning a house doesn’t immediately make it home. That takes time, familiarity and the right people to ease the transition from one to the other.
And while Holmes and Campbell have said and done all the right things to express the franchise’s faith in the two-time Pro Bowl quarterback, it’s been rookie offensive coordinator Ben Johnson who has truly been able to harness Goff’s sense of ownership entering his second season with the Lions.
“They’re giving me the empowerment to do it,” Goff said. “That’s not always the case, but they’re allowing me to make it my team, they’re allowing me to be that guy. In Year 7 now, I’m a vet. I’ve seen some things and I know what I’m talking about in some ways. They trust me and let me play.”
When Goff arrived in town, Johnson was serving as the team’s tight ends coach. But by midseason, the two were working together directly. With Goff and the offense struggling at the bye, Campbell took over play-calling, demoting then-offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. In conjunction with that change, Johnson was asked to coordinate the team’s passing game.
In the NFL, there’s only so much you can change on the fly. Once the season begins, the scheme and playbook are established and an overhaul of either isn’t realistic. But Johnson was able to incorporate enough tweaks to play designs, as well as the timing of when things were called within a game, to allow the unit to experience steady improvements down the stretch.
The most notable of those improvements came with Goff, who completed 67.7% of his throws for 1,250 yards, 11 touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 101.8 in his final six games.
For context, if you projected those numbers across a full season, he’d statistically be a top-10 quarterback. Not bad for a guy who spent much of that stretch operating without his Pro Bowl center, Pro Bowl tight end and starting dual-threat running back, who all missed a combined 18 games following Detroit’s Week 8 bye.
And while familiarity and comfort played a role, Johnson’s coaching style was arguably the biggest factor. He provided Goff with a snap-to-snap clarity that had been lacking to that point.
“Everyone in this league collects plays; it’s important to understand why they’re used, what are we attacking,” Johnson said. “I think just understanding the intent behind each play. It’s not just this team ran this and it worked. We can’t just throw that out there and expect to have the same success. We really have to understand why we like that.
“… As much as we can make that black and white for them, and they understand we’re calling this play to throw it here, or we’re calling this play to get this guy the ball — the more we can define those parameters, the better he is because now he can play fast, he can play confidently, he knows what we’re trying to do,” Johnson said. “I felt like he started to understand a little bit more about what we were trying to get done the second half of the season.”
It seems like such a simple concept, but Goff acknowledges Johnson, who he describes as a natural teacher, provided that clarity at the end of last season. Maybe that’s why it was an easy decision for Campbell to officially promote Johnson to offensive coordinator in February.
And with that title in hand, Johnson could go to work making the offense his, instead of working with what he and Campbell inherited midstream during the 2021 campaign.
But Johnson would be quick to point out that it’s a misnomer to suggest the Lions will be running his scheme this year. No, in the spirit of collaboration established throughout the highest ranks of the organization, he sought to piece together a system through the same process, taking direct input from the head coach, assistant coaches, and — perhaps, most importantly — the players.
That started with Goff.
In the early stages of the offseason, following Johnson’s promotion, the coordinator and quarterback met privately at the team’s practice facility. During three all-day sessions, running approximately 24 total hours, a vision for the foundation was laid out.
“We kind of took off a couple different directions, one of which was showing concepts, primarily in the passing game, that I’ve experienced and I wanted to include, that I thought would complement what I envisioned and Coach Campbell envisioned this offense going,” Johnson said. “Then we took it another way, where we turned on (the tape of) his last two years in L.A. and what he liked and what he liked it against. That’s kind of what we’ve gotten to.”
And while it starts with the quarterback, Johnson’s collaborative approach stretches to all the offensive position groups. Most coaches will tell you that they’re trying to put their players in the best position to succeed based on their skill sets, but few are willing to actually listen to those players when designing a play or game planning for an opponent.
“You can talk to BJ, and it’s almost like he sees what you’re seeing from a player’s perspective,” wide receiver Kalif Raymond said. “If I want to do something with a route, he’ll tell me while I’m seeing it that way.”
Fellow receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown provided a specific example.
“When the DB (defensive back) is playing outside leverage and we have a go route, some coaches are going to insist on an outside release, even if (the corner) has outside leverage, making it hard,” St. Brown said. “He understands as a receiver, that’s tough. (He’ll say), ‘Shoot, just go inside of him then get back on your go route.’ It’s little things like that that we love because he can relate to that and he knows how we feel when we’re out there.”
On paper, play designs are drawn with neat lines, but Johnson understands reality is more nuanced. As long as the receiver understands where he needs to end up and why he needs to be at that spot — the intent of the route — that’s what matters most.
“We want you, as the primary (receiver), to win the best way you possibly can,” Johnson said. “It’s all about understanding what we’re trying to accomplish, in the big picture. Those guys, these days, they’re so darn smart. They can grasp it all, especially a guy like St. Brown. He’s just soaking it up every single day.”
A little of this, a little of that
Johnson’s background is a little bit different than the average offensive coordinator’s.
A former college quarterback, Johnson played under three coordinators during his time at the University of North Carolina. And since going into coaching, Johnson has coached under Mike Sherman, running a West Coast offense, Bill Lazor utilizing Mike Martz’s digit system and Adam Gase, who crafted a scheme with and around Peyton Manning in Denver.
On top of that, Johnson has found ways to incorporate elements from what Sean McVay runs with the Rams, what Campbell experienced working under Sean Payton in New Orleans and even some of what senior adviser John Morton picked up working with Jon Gruden’s Raiders the past three years.
Unlike a typical play design, you can’t trace a neat line from any specific system to what Detroit is planning to do offensively this season. That schematic hodgepodge has all been thrown into a blender and come out as a uniquely flexible system.
“I think we did a really good job — and we were intentional about it during the spring — in terms of how can we make this thing flexible to where we can adapt once we find the identity we’re looking for, but at the same time, have it make sense and all mesh together,” Johnson said. “Really, I’m proud of where we’re at right now, in terms of how the guys have picked it up and potentially what we can do to attack defenses down the road this season.”
Goff also notes Detroit’s offensive flexibility also improves Johnson’s ability to make in-game adjustments.
“He’s not afraid to do that at all, which is great,” Goff said. “And when you have smart players who are flexible and understand where we’re going with things, you can do that. I’ve been in schemes where you can’t do that because there’s no starting point, so you can’t go back to something. We have the ability to do that and it should make it harder on defense.”
As for the all-important intent of the scheme, Goff said Johnson has made things 10 times clearer this offseason than he was able to do during last year. And that’s shown up through the months leading up to Sunday’s season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, with Goff looking far more confident, comfortable and efficient on the practice field than a year ago.
“I think the whole unit has been really impressive,” Johnson said. “They’ve been extremely focused, extremely professional. Frankly, I think they don’t want to go through what we went through last year, a three-win season. Everyone, right now, is all hands on deck for how we can win more games as a team.
“I probably haven’t been around a more selfless group of guys, as a collective whole,” Johnson said. “I think everyone has their individual goals, but when we’re in there on unit meetings, I feel they’re solely focused on becoming the best offense we can become. I’ve felt that. This is my 11th year and that’s refreshing. It’s special, honestly. So I think they understand, I think they feel it, I think they know we’re going to try to put them in the best situations possible for them to play well on Sundays and they appreciate that.”