Detroit Lions Offensive Coordinator Ben Johnson interviewed for the Houston Texans head coaching position on Thursday. Deepi Sidhu spoke with Associated Press writer Larry Lage, beat reporter covering the Lions, about Johnson.
DS: The very first candidate to be interviewed was offensive coordinator Ben Johnson for the Detroit Lions. Larry, welcome in. We are going to pick your brain on everything, Ben Johnson.
LL: Sounds good.
DS: Just kidding. I'm just going to ask you a few questions because we want to get to know some of these candidates a little bit better. Johnson, of course, got a lot of traction for being the first time play caller for the Lions this year, dialed up some really unique plays at just the right moments. What sort of has been Ben Johnson's approach or philosophy to when it comes to calling the Lions offense?
LL: I would say innovation. I don't know how he does it, but Ben Johnson dials up the most innovative creative formations and plays I have ever seen from an offensive coordinator. I've been covering the Lions for the Associated Press for 23 years, covering Michigan and Michigan State, and it's just incredible how many times they dial something up and you're like, 'Wow, I haven't seen that before.' I mean, just take, for example, in a huge situation late in the game at Green Bay, they basically ran a hook-and-ladder, like out in the flat in a huge down-and-distance situation. You're like, wow, what was that? And we saw a lot of that this year. And frankly, in the second half of the 2021 season, when Dan Campbell demoted Anthony Lynn and effectively promoted Ben Johnson, and that really triggered the turnaround for Jared Goff and for the Lions who closed the 2021 season really strong. And after a slow start this year, they're arguably the hottest team in the NFL, in part because Ben Johnson was calling the plays.
DS: Has anyone asked him what his inspiration is? Because I've heard the same thing about Ben Johnson. He just draws up these crazy creative plays. But where does he draw his inspiration from?
LL: You know, it's a good question. And maybe if the Texans hire him, you can ask. I do know that he's really, really smart. He graduated from the University of North Carolina where he was a walk-on quarterback and he has degrees in math and computer science. So that tells me he's a really smart guy who obviously knows football. He is also lauded by coaches and players alike for his communication skills. So, I think really smart, talented people can take complex situations and explain it. And that is what Ben Johnson does for his staff and his players.
DS: How did his play calling then unlock the potential that we saw in quarterback Jared Goff and really improve his play this season?
LL: think it was a combination of Jared Goff, got some players back in the running game, in the passing game and we really saw deep throws more than we had seen previously with Jared Goff. There was a question about whether he could throw downfield and so much so that he was joking with reporters in Detroit that, you know, 'We don't do that' because he was tired of hearing questions about the lack of a vertical passing game. So we saw that worked in, and, again that was part of the personnel he has. And I think Ben Johnson makes the most of his personnel. When the Lions traded T.J. Hockenson to the rival Minnesota Vikings, a lot of people in Detroit, frankly, saw that as the Lions were mailing it in and they're going for a draft pick to vie with the Texans and Bears for the No. 1 pick. That's how it looked when they were 1-6, but he took three tight ends that did not have a track record, incorporated them in the offense. So long story short, I think he does the best with what he has. And once he got WR D.J. Chark back in the lineup and WR Jameson Williams, you saw more of a vertical passing game as the Lions closed the season, winning eight out of last ten.
DS: For a first year play caller, a lot of people may see what he's done there for the Lions offense, but may have reservations about Ben Johnson as a as a head coach, what are some qualities that you think he brings to the table as a first time head coach?
LL: I think he communicates really well. As I as I said previously, I think everything in life is communication. Any time you're in a relationship, whether you're talking about a head coach with his staff and his players, whether you're talking about two spouses, friends, a parent and a kid, it all comes down to communication. Right away you could tell that he was connecting with the Lions in the 2021 season when he was effectively promoted to replace Anthony Lynn as the offensive coordinator, in effect for Dan Campbell in his first year. And another thing to point out, Dan Campbell came in to Detroit in the 2021 season and he kept Ben Johnson on the staff. He was a quality control coach under Matt Patricia. So, you know that Ben Johnson impressed Dan Campbell enough that he said, 'I want to keep this guy,' and he made him the tight ends coach. I think the fact that he has experience from the Miami Dolphins shows that the Lions weren't the only team he coached in the league. So he has some different perspectives. And, you know, while it might look like a reach to hire Ben Johnson, who has never been a head coach, the Texans might be beating other suitors such as the Panthers or Colts or other teams that might come knocking on the door. It might at first seem like an outside-the-box reach or it might be that they took a chance on a guy who's going to be a great head coach. And I think some NFL team is going to do that, if not in this cycle, a cycle soon.
DS: How much can you tell us about his personality? What have been your impressions of Ben Johnson off the field?
LL: He takes his job very seriously, but he doesn't seem to take life seriously. He's relatively soft-spoken but also funny and doesn't command a presence by being the loudest voice in the room but does it with respect. I think he's a guy that will make a great leader for an NFL team at some point, and perhaps that'll be the Texans in 2023.