One of the aspects to the increasing difficulty that comes with succeeding in the NFL, and a factor that rarely gets talked about, is good head coaches losing good assistant coaches to the rest of the league. Coaches who not only take concepts and philosophies to their new teams, but who are also more prepared to face their former team and the many copycats around the NFL who steal by watching film. Since the end of his first season with the L.A. Rams, Sean McVay has lost coaches like Matt LaFleur, Zac Taylor, Kevin O’Connell, Brandon Staley, Ejiro Evero, Thomas Brown, Shane Waldron, and Joe Barry.
Between McVay and Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers, two friends with closely aligned philosophies, the majority of the NFL likely has at least one link to either of those two offenses.
But the hottest name in offensive coordinators in 2023 has never coached for either McVay nor Shanahan and he spurned coaching interviews in January for another chance to work with Jared Goff. His name is Ben Johnson of the Detroit Lions and pretty soon we could talk about big name coaches stealing from him instead of the other way around.
Perhaps even including McVay watching Goff in order to help Matthew Stafford.
Among my favorite football YouTubers who I have found lately is All_22_Films, a high school coach giving his breakdowns of modern professional football with All-22 angles. It is Johnson’s use of the fullback on the Lions that could appeal to McVay and using Ben Skowronek more often in 2023 in order to help L.A.’s run game get going earlier this season than it took last season.
Without a doubt, McVay is going to have to tweak his offense again in 2023, not only to keep defenses guessing of what the Rams are going to run—also due to the fact that L.A. no longer has the same type of talent that they had in 2017-2019 or 2021-2022—but also because Mike LaFleur has replaced Liam Coen as offensive coordinator and it will be necessary to start finding new plays that might help this type of personnel.
Johnson does also have a loose connection to former McVay assistants.
After three years as an assistant at Boston College, Johnson was hired as an offensive assistant on the Miami Dolphins under Joe Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman in 2012. There he met Zac Taylor, the assistant quarterbacks coach at the time. Johnson spent seven years with the Dolphins, having also been retained by Adam Gase when Miami fired Philbin in 2016, working with quarterbacks, tight ends, and receivers.
Johnson became a free agent when Gase was fired in 2019 and then Lions head coach Matt Patricia picked him up as a quality control coach that year. It is perhaps only coincidence and luck that Detroit hired Dan Campbell, also a former Dolphins assistant who spent four years working next to Johnson in Miami, as their next head coach in 2021. Campbell picked former Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn as his offensive coordinator that year but fired him after the season because “it wasn’t a fit”.
Detroit ranked 25th in scoring at 19.1 points per game, but even that’s a little misleading. The Lions ranked 29th in DVOA and Goff was nearly benched and out of a job by the end of the season.
One month later, Campbell promoted Johnson to offensive coordinator and come last season, the Lions improved to fifth in scoring at 26.6 points per game, fifth in DVOA, and there’s even talk of people considering whether Goff will be an MVP candidate. Whether Johnson got more out of Goff than McVay or not is simply a debate, but it is at least a reasonable argument.
Johnson not only schemed Goff into a Pro Bowl season with 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions with only 23 sacks taken, he turned journeyman running back Jamaal Williams into a bonafide star (17 touchdowns) and recent fourth round pick Amon-Ra St. Brown had over 100 catches and 1,161 yards. To help balance out the reasons for this as being more than Ben Johnson, former Rams exec Brad Johnson has done an exceptional job of drafting, especially on offense: St. Brown, Penei Sewell, and guard Jonah Jackson in the previous two years. Next, the Lions hope to give Johnson receiver Jameson Williams at full blast when he returns from a gambling suspension, as well as first round running back Jahmyr Gibbs and second round tight end Sam LaPorta from the jump.
Detroit is thought to maybe have the best offensive line in football, a title that would be surprising on the Rams as we had to training camp in two days.
But coaches all over the NFL are probably now looking to the Detroit Lions—yes those Lions—for offensive help and in large thanks to surprising offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. For Rams Xs and Os fans wondering what new wrinkles could be added to L.A.’s offense when we get a glimpse of real football in the coming weeks and months, I’d start looking at Ben Johnson.