The hottest head coaching candidate in the NFL isn’t going anywhere. Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson has informed teams he’s staying in Detroit, choosing to continue in his role as Dan Campbell’s right hand man, rather than ascend to one of the most prized jobs in football.
It’s a move that’s stunning, only because we’ve become conditioned to believe that everyone wants a top job. Johnson seemingly had the Washington Commanders’ head coaching job in hand, a role where he could enter under new leadership, have the rope needed to shape the team in his image, with a top-3 pick, and an abundance of cap room. It was arguably the best open job in the NFL because of the freedom it offered, and yet he’s deciding to stick in a lesser role.
Ben Johnson stuck to his guns
Outside of speculation, there was never any evidence that Johnson actually wanted a head coaching job. In 2023 he rejected overtures from the Carolina Panthers, in what would have been a much more attractive job at the time.
It’s easy now to look at the Panthers as a total disaster, but a year ago they were being thrown around as the best open job in the league. They had a top-10 pick, talent all over the roster, and interim coach Steve Wilks was almost able to get them into the playoffs. Pair all that with the fact Johnson is a Carolina native, and it seemed like an ideal fit.
But Johnson said no.
The belief was that there was unfinished business, and that business still exists. The Lions fell one game from a Super Bowl berth, and if they kept the band together there’s a very real chance they could win the NFC North again and make it back to the playoffs. We learned that the Detroit roster isn’t perfect, but the success now makes the Lions a hot free agent destination where guys who want to win will play.
In addition, there were rumors in league circles that started at the back-end of the season that Johnson didn’t really have the ambition to be a head coach. He was exceedingly happy in his current role, and didn’t see the need to ascend as being critical to his future in football. Those rumors ended up playing out, and now Johnson returns.
Johnson returning to Detroit keeps their window open
Dan Campbell gave a sobering speech to his players after their loss in the NFC Championship that it might have been their only shot. That changes with the return of Ben Johnson.
Now, the Lions could still lose defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn — but the offense of the Lions was in a far more tenuous position moving forward. One of Johnson’s greatest qualities as an offensive coordinator was something in short supply in the modern NFL: Being immutable. He’s a coach who doesn’t have a fixed scheme or tendency that he needs to build towards, instead using his own modern twist on the classic Erhardt-Perkins system to utilize the players available to him, and maximizing their ability.
The risk for the Lions was that a new OC wouldn’t know how to take Detroit’s curious mix of pieces and put them together in a way that would bring the same level of success. Now they’ll get to roll forward with Jared Goff and Co. for at least one more year, in a system that has proven success on winning in the modern NFL.
It would have been such a huge shame to see the Lions go back to the drawing board after one season of success. This is a good thing for the NFL.
Ben Johnson made such a smart choice
It’s been said a lot that Johnson was dumb for not grabbing the brass ring, but why? He’s only 37-years old in a league where he could conceivably still keep working for another thirty years if he keeps performing.
There’s no rush in taking a head coaching job if his heart is in Detroit. He’s been with the team since 2019, and has two young children. Uprooting them and moving to a new city where he’ll be the focus of every ounce of attention is, simply put, a bad life move.
It might suck if you really wanted Johnson to be your head coach, but if he doesn’t have his heart in that role yet then you didn’t want him anyway. There’s no shame in thriving in a job you’re great at, rather than moving into a top job too quickly.
Dick LeBeau waited 27 years becoming a head coach in the NFL after decades of coordinator jobs. While his time at the helm of the Bengals didn’t go to play, he found himself employed for over 40 years because of the relationships he built in the league. Johnson could do the same thing.
It’s simply not always about the fame or the money. Kudos to Ben Johnson for realizing that.