Former UNC football player makes decision on coaching future

Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, a UNC football backup quarterback in the early 2000s, turned down several offers to be a head coach to stay in Detroit.

Ben Johnson chats with Jared Goff during the Lions' game against the Packers.
Ben Johnson chats with Jared Goff during the Lions' game against the Packers. / Mike Mulholland/GettyImages

Two decades after walking on with the UNC football program as a backup quarterback, Ben Johnson has risen to become one of the top assistants in the NFL. His star has really risen over the last two years with the Detroit Lions, and for the last two offseasons he has been seriously considered for head coaching slots.

Johnson interviewed with the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts after crafting an offense that scored 30 or more points eight times. He was also slated to interview with the Carolina Panthers but opted to return to the Motor City. After sparking the Lions to a franchise record-tying 12 wins, their first division title in 32 years, and their deepest playoff run in the Super Bowl era, Johnson was seriously considered for a top job again.

The former Tar Heel was on the shortlist for the open head coaching slots with the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Commanders. However, according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, it looks like Detroit will keep all its key pieces together for at least another season.

Johnson also drew interest from the Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, and Los Angeles Chargers. However, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, any team wanting to hire him would have had to pay a hefty sum to lure him away.

Looking at the work Johnson did in Detroit, he earned the right to name his terms. The Lions finished with the third-best total offense in the NFL, behind only the Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers. He helped Jared Goff resurrect his career with a career-best 67.3 percent completion percentage.

It turns out Johnson's coaching career had its genesis during his days in Chapel Hill. According to a September 2023 profile on ESPN, T. J. Yates--a redshirt freshman when Johnson was a senior--recalled Johnson had "a deeper understanding of football than anyone else on the team." Even after Yates beat Johnson out for the starting job, Yates remembered that Johnson was "willing to help out, teach."

According to The Detroit News, UNC football offensive coordinator John Shoop apparently saw those traits as well. He encouraged Johnson to go into coaching. He went to Boston College as a graduate assistant in 2009 and became a full-time assistant in 2011 as a tight ends coach. He then went to Miami for seven years, during which he was reunited with Yates in 2016.

He then moved to Detroit as an offensive quality control coach under Matt Patricia, and was promoted to tight ends coach a year later. Campbell retained him upon his arrival in 2021. After an 0-8 start to the 2021 season, Johnson took on some play-calling duties, becoming offensive coordinator in name as well as in fact in 2022.

By then, Johnson already had a lot of credibility with the offense. Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown told ESPN that when Johnson presented red zone installs ahead of the 2021 season opener, it was clear that he "knows exactly what he's talking about. It turns out that St. Brown was seeing the same things that Johnson showed during his days in Chapel Hill.

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