Part of the lingering sting the Detroit Lions were left with Sunday evening, after their heartbreaking 34-31 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, was the knowledge that it’s hard to get here, and even harder to get back. They were so close to their first Super Bowl appearance. They watched it slip away in real time. And the belief in the days that followed was that if they were going to get back to the NFC title game, they’d have to do it without the star offensive coordinator who had helped guide them there this season.
But that’s no longer the case. Ben Johnson told the Washington Commanders and Seattle Seahawks on Tuesday he would remain with the Lions rather than continue to pursue those teams’ head coaching jobs, per team and league sources, and now everything is on the table. His return makes Detroit’s path back clearer.
That the Lions are here, running it back, was not the expectation. Most assumed the Lions would lose Johnson, one of the league’s best and brightest offensive minds. Since his promotion to offensive coordinator ahead of the 2022 season, Detroit ranks first in yards per game (387.4) and fourth in points per game (26.9). It didn’t take long for the league to take notice. After the 2022 season, Johnson interviewed with several teams, before making the surprising decision to return to the Lions.
This appeared to be the year Johnson would move on, after a second season of coordinator experience leading one of the league’s best offenses, while helping the Lions to their first playoff win in 32 years. His head coach even felt he was ready.
“I think it’s made him a more well-rounded coach,” Dan Campbell said of Johnson’s return to the team for the 2023 season. “I just think everything has grown. I think he’s got a very good grasp of what we do. … He’s starting to look for and ask these questions about roster (management), game day, building a team, what you’re looking for, front of the room. And I think it’s served him well and it’s a credit to him.”
Instead, Johnson is staying with the Lions, and now they can move forward with a Super Bowl in mind. It allows them to dream bigger than they ever have before entering an offseason.
Playoff loss was painful, but Lions now have motivation for 2024 season
Johnson’s impact on the Lions cannot be understated. He’s a fearless play-caller, unafraid to throw to his right or left tackle in crunch time, trusting his guys to make plays. He deploys one of the most diverse rushing attacks in the NFL, mixing and matching scheme to keep defenses on their heels. He’s an excellent game planner, routinely pressing the right buttons to attack a defense’s weaknesses. He’s a collaborator, willing to take input from assistants and his players. And he’s an adaptor — a coach who can take the talent he’s given and put it in positions to succeed based on strengths and weaknesses.
Look no further than his quarterback, Jared Goff. He’s playing some of the best football of his career under Johnson, after his former franchise gave up on him. He now gets to continue doing so in a year when a Super Bowl title becomes a realistic goal.
The two men at the forefront of one of the league’s best offenses are now entering their fourth season together, and third season as an OC-QB pairing. It works because of the trust and cohesion between the two.
“I think how much input he allows me to have and whether he takes it or he doesn’t, he allows me to say it and uses some of it,” Goff said last week, when asked about the best part of working with Johnson. “It’s fun for me, it really is. It allows me to really be a part of the plan in some ways. And he’s a great listener and listens to not only me, but all the players, of what they want, what they see. And that’s not only through the week, but on game day.”
“I’ve seen guys come in and they plop down a playbook and try to change the quarterback,” Johnson said. “And there is a degree of growing the quarterback and challenging the quarterback, but I think it still starts with what that quarterback does best. So, that was always our starting point a couple years ago with Jared, what does he do best, and then we’ve looked to grow and develop him from there. And so, it’s been very much a hand-in-hand, step-in-step process.”
It’s not just Goff, either. Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown was named a first-team All-Pro for the first time in his career. Running back David Montgomery rushed for north of 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns, amid the best season of his career. Running back Jahmyr Gibbs and tight end Sam LaPorta, both rookies, made the Pro Bowl. The offensive line was put in positions to win regularly. And the Lions averaged nearly 29 points per game in the playoffs — including 31 against a San Francisco defense that allowed just 17.5 in the regular season.
Detroit’s offense is a well-oiled machine with Johnson leading the charge. With that side of the ball in good shape and loaded with talent, look for Detroit to use resources to fix a defense that improved, but still has obvious holes to fill, as the Lions try to cement their status as contenders in the NFC.
That’s the big difference from last year to this year. When the 2023 season began, players and coaches would only go as far as stating their desire to win a division title, get in the playoffs and see how they stacked up against the best the league had to offer. They accomplished that, making it all the way to the NFC Championship Game.
The Lions are motivated to prove that wasn’t a fluke. They should be thinking bigger, aiming higher than ever before.
Johnson’s return gives them all the more reason to do so.
(Top photo: Jeff Nguyen / Detroit Lions)