How Ben Johnson went from Lions tight ends coach to top head coaching candidate

DETROIT — It didn’t take long for Amon-Ra St. Brown to realize Ben Johnson was different.

Ahead of the 2021 season opener, the then-tight ends coach was tasked with presenting red-zone installs in front of the entire Detroit Lions team.

St. Brown — then a Lions rookie receiver — had heard other coaches present strategies for first, second and third down situations, but Johnson’s delivery stood out immediately.

“The way he’s explaining the plays, the way he’s detailed with how we’ve got to run these routes in the red zone, I just knew the way he was talking to us, it just felt different,” St. Brown recalled. “I told one of my teammates, I forgot who it was, I was like, ‘Bro, when Ben gets up there, he knows exactly what he’s talking about, he’s telling us what he sees in this play, what he wants us to do. There’s no gray area. It’s super detailed.'”

After an 0-8 start to the season, Johnson was given playcalling responsibilities along with coach Dan Campbell, who assumed the role after the team demoted offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. Johnson was officially named offensive coordinator the following offseason.

With Johnson fully at the helm, the Lions offense has become one of the NFL’s best. Detroit had eight games with 30 or more points last season, which set a single-season franchise record. And since the start of the 2022 campaign, Detroit ranks fifth in offensive expected points added (EPA) while averaging 5.9 yards per play, which ranks fifth in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Detroit’s 50 plays of 25-plus yards are the sixth-most over that span.

Now, in his second season as OC and heading into Thursday night clash at the Green Bay Packers (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video), the 37-year-old has gone from unknown tight ends coach to one of the hottest names on the NFL’s head coaching market.

This offseason, Johnson interviewed for head coaching jobs with the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts. He was scheduled to meet with the Carolina Panthers before returning to help the Lions try to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

“He definitely has the characteristics to be a head coach,” Lions running back David Montgomery said. “And he’ll get there eventually, if that’s what he wants ultimately, but right now he’s just focused on right now and helping us be the best versions of ourselves.”

Johnson said he appreciated being considered for head coaching positions, but his decision to stay was about the atmosphere he helped Campbell create in Detroit. After speaking with his family, he didn’t want to ruin a good thing. He’s committed to building a winner in Detroit.

“Truthfully, it’s not about me and it never has been. So, for them, I think it’s a player’s game. They’re going out there playing. Yeah, I’m still here, whether they like me or not, I don’t really know, 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,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter who is the coordinator, who’s the playcaller, who the position coaches are, we’re here for them to make them the best players that they can possibly make this organization win as many games as we possibly can.”


WHEN THE LIONS made Johnson their offensive coordinator in February of 2022, news traveled fast that the team had locked up one of the bright young coaches in the league.

While preparing his team to face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI, Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor took time during a media session to praise Johnson.

“I’ve tried to hire Ben many, many, many times. He always just gets promoted to where I can’t get him. [Lions coach] Dan [Campbell] knows that,” Taylor told reporters. “I’ve always tried to find a place for him on staff, whether it’s offense, defense, special [teams], it doesn’t matter. He’s one of those guys you want on your staff because he’s brilliant.”

Johnson began his coaching career in 2009 as a graduate assistant at Boston College, where he eventually rose to tight ends coach in his third season. From there, he joined the Miami Dolphins — where he was on the staff with Taylor — in 2012. Over his seven years in Miami, he worked in a number of roles – offensive assistant, assistant quarterbacks coach, tight ends coach, assistant wide receiver coach and finally wide receivers coach — before moving to Detroit in 2019 as an offensive quality control coach for former Lions head coach Matt Patricia. When Campbell was hired as the Lions coach in 2021, he was quick to keep Johnson on the staff.

When Campbell officially made him the offensive coordinator in 2022, the unit’s production skyrocketed, ranking fifth in the league in points scored (26.6 per game) while helping the team to its first winning season (9-8) since 2017. Former Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin — who hired Johnson in Miami — got to see the Lions’ high-powered offense up close as a member of the Dallas Cowboys staff last season.

“Sometimes people think there are a lot of magical things that are getting involved in football and certainly Ben schematically is very, very good. But the impressive thing is they execute at a high level,” Philbin told ESPN. “They do intelligent things, they don’t run a lot of bad plays, they’re sound, they execute well. They play hard, which are all good indicators of a well-coached offensive football team. So, I wouldn’t say that I’m overly surprised by any of that.”

Campbell describes Johnson as a “chess player”. He says Johnson puts a lot of time and thought into getting certain players touches and when to call plays, which, according to Campbell, is key in building the gameplan for the week.

“He can identify quickly things that, ‘Man, I know I’ve got to be better here. I won’t ever do that again. Man, if we play these guys again, this is exactly what I would do,'” Campbell said.

“He’s got an answer for all of it in real time and the more he memory banks, he just keeps getting better and better and growing. And then even from the game-plan standpoint, putting players in the best position to have success.”

Johnson displayed his sense of timing in the fourth quarter of a Week 14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings last season. Nursing a late lead, on a critical third-and-7, he drew up a trick play for Lions offensive tackle Penei Sewell, whose 9-yard catch extended the drive and helped the Lions seal a 34-23 win.

“You can’t do that if you don’t have a coordinator that’s got vision, flexibility and belief in what he does so Ben’s outstanding,” Campbell said. “He’s doing a hell of a job, [he’s] his own worst critic, too. He’s harder on himself than anybody can be, so he’s driven that way.”


T.J. YATES FIRST met Johnson in the quarterbacks room at the University of North Carolina. Yates was a freshman and Johnson was a walk-on. Even then, Johnson’s football IQ jumped out to Yates, who said he had a deeper understanding of football than anyone else on the team.

Despite competing for playing time, which Yates ultimately earned as a redshirt freshman in 2007, Johnson helped coach Yates — who would end his UNC career owning 37 school records — on the intricacies of the quarterback position.

Even now, Yates still remembers some of the hand signals they developed together to help relay messages between him and the Tar Heels coaching staff during games.

“He was always a guy that was willing to help out, teach, and you could just tell,” said Yates, who spent seven seasons in the NFL, including a 2016 stint in Miami where Johnson was the wide receivers coach.

“When a guy talks football, the teaching part just naturally comes out of them and that’s something you could really see from Ben early on.”

That same formula has helped Lions quarterback Jared Goff experience a career revival under Johnson. Goff was one of four Lions offensive players – including St. Brown, Sewell and center Frank Ragnow — named to the Pro Bowl in 2022 after finishing top-five in offense.

Players say Johnson’s word carries weight around the Lions’ facility because they see him logging long hours in the office — and in the gym — just like them.

“If he’s saying something, there’s a reason. I’m not gonna question what he’s saying because I know he’s up there watching film,” St. Brown said. “I know he’s spending hours in this building so when he tells me something, I’m not even second guessing. I’m like, ‘OK, Ben said this. He’s saying it for a reason and I’m listening to him.’

“There’s no question. For me, I respect the hell out of that because I know he’s putting the work in everyday, he’s watching the tape, he wants to be great, and he’s never satisfied. That’s something that I really like about him, too.”

With Johnson guiding him, Goff put together one of the best stretches of his career. His streak of 383 consecutive passes without an interception was recently snapped in the Week 2 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, but it marked the third-longest such streak in NFL history behind only Aaron Rodgers (402 straight in 2018) and Tom Brady (399 straight in 2022). Last year, Goff also posted the franchise’s lowest single-season interception rate (1.2%) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (4.14) in a single season.

The former No. 1 overall pick highlighted Johnson’s ability to communicate and listen as his biggest strengths, and said he’s open to implement suggestions from players during the game.

“Constant communication and honesty. He’s not afraid to check me and then not afraid to tell me I’m doing s–t right,” Goff told ESPN. “We have a very open communication and relationship, where I can come to him, and vent and he can come to me and I can also go to him with ideas. Obviously, he’s the idea guy, but if I have stuff that I think will work, he’ll listen to everything. He’s a great listener.”

Entering last season, Goff and Johnson made a pact that they were committed to having each other’s backs, through good and bad times, to build a winning culture in Detroit. They’ve stayed true to that and now have their sights set on helping the Lions win their first division title in three decades.

“He’s not afraid to coach me and coach me hard and that’s what I crave,” Goff said. “I love being coached hard and I love getting feedback. He wants me to be great as much as I want to be great and it’s fun to play for a guy like that.”

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How Ben Johnson went from Lions tight ends coach to top head coaching candidate