Under Ben Johnson, stasis is the antithesis of the Lions offense. During games and between them, things are constantly in motion. There goes Amon-Ra St. Brown on a jet sweep, and here comes Jared Goff with a new idea. One of Johnson's "superpowers" as coordinator one of the best offenses in the NFL last season, and thereby one of the hottest coaches in the industry, is that he listens to his players, says Goff. All of them.
Johnson's offense could be even better this season. The front five are (don't say it!) finally healthy at the same time, the new backfield duo looks more explosive and there are enough pass-catchers around Goff, including one of the best in the game in St. Brown, to spread the ball around the field. And Goff's own game continues to grow.
"I'd certainly say so," Goff said this spring. "I said that a handful of times last year, that I was playing the best football of my career, and I plan to continue doing that."
Johnson has empowered Goff by giving him a voice. Their relationship is built on trust, forged through collaboration from the moment Dan Campbell elevated Johnson to Lions passing game coordinator midway through the 2021 season. At the time, Goff looked lost. His 100.9 passer rating is one of the best in the NFL since. Left for dead by Sean McVay and the Rams, Goff has reasserted himself in Detroit as one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL.
"He is a better quarterback than he was there, in my opinion, because he can do more things," Campbell said this spring. "He is mentally on it. … We ask him to do a lot more, in my opinion, than what they were actually doing out there."
So back to Johnson, and the Lions' ever-evolving offense. While the core concepts are established, "we continue to add" to the playbook, says Goff, either by introducing new wrinkles or re-introducing "things we used last year that we want to implement again for a certain style of defense." And they'll continue to evolve as new opponents -- new obstacles -- present themselves each week.
"Ben, that’s what he does best," said Goff, "is be creative and get us into the right positions."
But rarely on his own. Goff isn't the only player with significant input in the Lions' offense. Johnson is open to anyone with a play, concept or vision that might help Detroit move the ball. As recently documented by The Ringer -- 'How Ben Johnson Fixed Jared Goff' -- each offensive lineman is asked to circle his five favorite run plays after the installation of the game plan every week, knowing that Johnson will call those plays on Sunday.
And asked about other skill players coming to Johnson with new plays, Goff said Tuesday on 97.1 The Ticket, "St. Brown is the first one I think of."
"He’s always got creative ideas and things to get himself open. It’s always fun hearing them and a lot of times they’re great," said Goff. "I think that’s one of Ben’s superpowers, is that he listens. He really does listen, he really will hear you out and if he likes the idea, he’s got no problem implementing it that week and calling it in the game.
"When you give power to the players like that and give us some ownership in some of that stuff, you typically make it work as a player when it’s your idea."
The Lions averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry last season for the first time since their running back was named Barry. Goff led the NFL in touchdown-to-interception ratio, throwing 324 straight passes to close the season (don't say it!) without getting picked. The offense churned out the fourth most yards in the NFL, and then Johnson turned down potential head coaching jobs to tend to unfinished business in Detroit.
"It made sense," he said. "Don’t ruin a good thing."
If the big men up front are the engine of the Lions' offense -- "We're just shoveling the coal," says O-line coach Hank Fraley -- the brains behind it are Johnson and Campbell. The 49ers and Eagles, the consensus top two teams in the NFC, finished second and third, respectively, in the conference last season in yards per play. Know who finished first? The favorites in the NFC North.
The Lions plan to pick up where they left off. Their offensive identity isn't set in stone, but "we have a good idea of who we are and who we want to be," says Goff. For one, they'll pound the ball to set up play-action, out of which Goff had the highest passer rating in the NFL last season. Patrick Mahomes, the quarterback across from him next Thursday, ranked second.
"Just excited to see us hopefully take the next step," said Goff. "There’s a lot of excitement around us from the outside perspective, and we’re excited here as well. But we know we gotta go win games."
It's a huge year for Goff, and a potentially transformative one for Johnson. With another strong season, the quarterback can secure his future and the coordinator can become a head coach. Both can help the other get there. It resumes a week from tomorrow against the defending Super Bowl champs. It started two years ago, at the low point of the Lions rebuild, when Johnson was a nobody and Goff was looking more and more like a has-been. Look at them now.
"We can talk about it all offseason, but now we gotta go do it," said Goff. "The rubber’s meeting the road."