Detroit Lions’ success this season rests squarely on Ben Johnson’s shoulders

Detroit Free Press

The most important person who will determine the Detroit Lions’ success this year walked up to the lectern in Allen Park on Wednesday and said something that wasn’t true.

No, it wasn’t Dan Campbell or Brad Holmes. It wasn’t Jared Goff or Amon-Ra St. Brown. It wasn’t even Sheila Hamp.

It was Ben Johnson, the NFL’s best offensive coordinator — at least according to Pro Football Focus, the bible of league analytics.

“Truthfully,” he said, “it’s not about me and it never has been.”

Sorry, but truthfully it’s entirely about Johnson. His talent in his first full season as a play-caller was so undeniable that he almost got a head coaching job in the offseason and he’s almost certain to get one after this season. Or, as PFF preferred to sum it up, Johnson made people believe Goff is actually a good quarterback.

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To be fair, Johnson’s answer came while he was navigating a sticky question. He was asked if players had responded favorably to him for making a commitment to them over the “long haul.” Johnson has never made that commitment because he knows, like everyone in the NFL knows, he’s as good as gone if the Lions’ offense has anything close to as much success as it had last year.

That left Johnson little room to maneuver. He can’t deny a lack of commitment, but he can’t promise to stay here for the long haul while he’s simultaneously checking Zillow listings for the enclaves of hot-seat coaches in Cleveland, Dallas and Costa Mesa, Newport Beach or whichever L.A. suburb Brandon Staley lives in.

And that led to another un-truth.

“So for them,” Johnson said, “I think it’s a player’s game.”

Let’s get something straight. The NFL is the furthest thing from a player’s game there is in pro sports. There’s a coach in New England who would gladly back me up on this. There used to be a mustachioed coach in Chicago and a coach who wore a funny little hat in Dallas who would also attest to this.

The NFL is as much a player’s game as Santa’s workshop is an elf’s game. It’s Santa’s game, and don’t you ever forget that. Now cobble, you pointy-eared little weirdos! Cobble!

Poor, Ben Johnson. All he could do was deflect and try to be as generous and selfless as he could. It’s what any good head coach — I mean coordinator — would do.

“Yeah, I’m still here, whether they like me or not, I don’t really know,” he said with a smile. “But the fact of the matter is, it’s about them and that’s the mindset we take as a coaching staff each and every day.

“It doesn’t matter who is the coordinator, who’s the play-caller, who the position coaches are. We’re here for them to make them the best players that they can possibly (be) — make this organization win as many games as we possibly can.”

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It doesn’t matter who the coordinator is?

Lordy. I hope that’s not how he kicks off his head coaching interviews.

OK, maybe if you have the mustachioed Chicago coach’s defense from 1985, then the OC doesn’t matter. But the Lions don’t — not by a mile. If the Lions are going to do anything and be what everyone thinks they can be this season, it all starts with the offense. But what that really means is it starts with Johnson, the resident genius — or “a little evil mastermind,” as DJ Chark once called him.

I think most people — fans, media, analysts — are just assuming the Lions’ offense will be as good or better than it was last year. That’s a reasonable assumption, since experience usually only helps someone like Johnson, who’s entering just his second season as a coordinator.

There’s a lot to be hopeful about: Goff’s improved play, the offensive line and St. Brown. But we can’t forget the run game is new and unknown, the second-round tight end plays a position that has a notoriously steep learning curve, and Jameson Williams will miss a third of the season.

As good as Johnson has been and as much confidence as he’s instilled in everyone, this season won’t be without its challenges. So I asked him where he thinks he needs to improve as a coach, and his answer said a lot about his heightened level of self-awareness, which bodes will for his next job.

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“I’d say from a preparation standpoint, being more efficient,” he said. “There were some late nights and we had some tired coaches over the course of the season. I’m hoping to be more efficient with the game-plan process to help us, to help the entire process throughout the week.

“On game day, I don’t know that much will change: We’re pretty much hay in the barn. And by the time we get to kickoff, we know exactly what we want to do once the game gets going.”

Johnson admitted it sometimes took him too long to sift through the information his coaches gave him, which meant long work days that can wear down a staff. Who hasn’t had that brilliant boss or coworker who meticulously labors over every detail. Great work, sure. But at what cost?

Not only do I appreciate Johnson’s introspection — something too many driven coaches lack — but also his willingness to share that shortcoming with us.

Because this Lions season will be defined by expectations and how close the team comes to living up to them, I asked Johnson what he thought of the sky-high expectations of him from people outside team headquarters.

“I’ve always had high expectations on myself,” he said. “It didn’t matter what position I was in. So, to me, it’s business as usual.”

If Johnson can deliver on just that, on the usual genius and excellence and extraordinary play-calling we’ve come to expect in such a short time, the Lions should have the kind of success they haven’t tasted in decades.

Oh, and he would one more thing. He would prove himself a liar, because you can bet if the Lions win a division title or even a playoff game, every single person in the NFL will know it definitely matters who the Lions’ offensive coordinator is.

Contact Carlos Monarrez: Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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