It’s early in the NFL season, very early, but even just two weeks in it’s clear the Detroit Lions have a breakout star on their team.
And no, it isn’t Amon-Ra St. Brown.
It isn’t D’Andre Swift, either. Or Aidan Hutchinson.
It’s the guy who wasn’t even really the guy until the Lions kicked off against Philadelphia.
Looking back, it’s seems laughable that Ben Johnson, who has the Lions tied for the second-best scoring offense in the NFL after two weeks — yes, SECOND BEST — wasn’t even formally given play-calling duties until the first game.
The last time the Lions finished with the league’s second-best scoring offense was in 1995, when some dude named Barry Sanders was carrying the ball. Johnson was 9 years old back then, and he was probably already designing plays with Crayolas as an obsessed football architect.
“I feel like when we go home,” receiver DJ Chark recently told the Free Press, “he’s in his lair drawing up plays to take over the world.”
Now those scribbles are turning into masterstrokes for a Lions offense that was gasping for air midway through last season under Anthony Lynn and was revitalized when coach Dan Campbell took over play-calling duties and got a huge assist from Johnson as the de facto pass-game coordinator.
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Campbell was cagey about handing Johnson the play-calling keys throughout the offseason. It’s my strong suspicion that was only a ploy that would give Campbell a convenient way to re-install himself as the play-caller if Johnson didn’t work out. That would have given Campbell a quick way to step in and rescue the offense again while using a somewhat credible explanation that Johnson was never formally the play-caller.
It’s important to note how crucial Johnson’s success is for Campbell’s tenure because after wins and losses, head coaches are judged in large part by who they hire and how they run the team. A head coach is a chief executive and a chief executive who keeps hiring the wrong top lieutenant, and has to explain why to his team owner, isn’t much of a chief executive.
But it seems play-calling responsibility is still a tender subject. I asked Johnson on Thursday when he felt confident in his ability to call the Lions’ offense. He basically dodged the question by saying he always wanted to call plays since he was a quarterback in high school and college.
“So for me it was always something in the back of my head I’d love the opportunity to do,” he said.
If Johnson won’t say it, then I will. I’d bet my paycheck against his that he was probably confident he could call plays for the Lions when Lynn’s offense failed to score more than 20 points in six of the first seven games last year and came to a screeching halt in a 44-6 loss to the Eagles that ended Lynn’s time as a play-caller for the Lions.
Think about that for a minute. Half a season ago, the Lions’ offense couldn’t score a touchdown at home. Now they’re averaging 35.5 points per game. Even with Barry in ’95, the offense only averaged 27.3 points. Of course, that was for a full season and the game was different back then.
Frankly, I’m amazed by how quickly the offense has clicked, especially because the personnel is pretty much the same as it was last year. I figured it would take some time for everyone to get used to their roles and get used to Johnson’s style.
Boy, was I wrong. Hey, first time for everything, right?
So I asked Johnson if the offense, even at this early stage, had exceeded his expectations.
“Not really, no,” he said. “If anything the first two weeks have shown us how far we have left to go. But we’re not — I don’t think anybody right now in that (offensive meeting) room is necessarily happy or pleased with what we’ve put on tape so far.
“There’s certainly been some encouraging things, but … we’re not hitting our stride, we’re not clicking on all cylinders, whatever cliché you want to use. … I think these guys all understand that we’ve got some (way) to go here before we’re really where we need to be.”
I almost fell out of my chair after he said that. Sure, coaches never want to admit complacency. But c’mon. I told Johnson he was making a big statement by saying the offense still has a way to go when it’s the NFL’s second-ranked scoring offense.
“It’s two weeks in,” he said. “I mean, it’s — we come back after a game, we don’t score, you guys are all turning on us. I mean, that’s the nature of the beast. It’s not you guys but, you know, fans and everything.
“So we’ve scored some points here the first two weeks. We need to continue to do that and continue to attack defenses. And these guys, they’re bought in, they’re believing in what we’re doing. We’ve just got to continue to improve every week.”
I will make Johnson a promise right now. If the Lions get shut out Sunday at Minnesota, I will not turn on him or the offense. Because growth isn’t always linear and, more than anything, this fledgling start is the mark of improvement.
No one probably remembers this around Detroit, whose sports teams have turned the town into Rebuild City, but this is what improvement looks like. It looks like a young assistant who finally got the job he should have had all along turning a fourth-round receiver, who should have been a first-rounder, into this week’s NFC offensive player of the week.
So, yeah, it’s early. And we’re talking about early promise. But don’t forget the alternative, which is what we’re usually talking about after two weeks. If a team is going to be any good, it has to start somewhere and it usually starts early. So go ahead and get a little excited before it’s too late, because a little early promise is long overdue around here.
Contact Carlos Monarrez: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.