Johnson headed to first game since Super Bowl

IRVING, Texas -- Wearing a blue practice jersey and clutching his white Dallas Cowboys game jersey, Tank Johnson headed off for a photo shoot during his lunch hour Wednesday.

The club needed a fresh picture now that he's truly part of the team.

His half-season suspension over, Johnson is preparing for both his Dallas debut and his first game since the Super Bowl, when he started on the defensive line for the Chicago Bears. He's been practicing for a few weeks, but things are different now that he knows he'll be playing Sunday against the New York Giants.

"I'm ready to go," Johnson told coach Wade Phillips.

"You're going to be in the game, so you better be!" Phillips responded.

Johnson sure looked eager, being among only three players who practiced in their game pants. Impressions and words of others are all we have to go on, though, because Johnson said he won't be talking until after the Giants game.

Phillips said Johnson will play mostly on first and second downs, getting in for about one-third of the game in place of starting nose tackle Jay Ratliff.

"He's in the rotation," Phillips said. "I think he's got quickness and strength. We'll see where he is pass rush-wise. But if he will help us on the pass rush, we'll put him in there, too."

Jason Ferguson began the year as the primary nose tackle, then was lost for the season in the opener. Soon after, the Cowboys signed Johnson, whom they'd already been considering because of his talent and availability.

Why was someone so talented even available?

Well, since the Super Bowl, he'd spent two months in jail for violating probation on a gun charge. He got out and vowed he was aiming to become the NFL's Man of the Year, only to see his candidacy go awry when he was pulled over for speeding and tested for driving under the influence. Although charges were never filed, the Bears decided he was out of second chances and cut him. Once the season started, the clock began ticking on an eight-game NFL suspension related to the weapons charges.

He signed Sept. 19, accepting a deal with no signing bonus and a minimum salary; actually, he's only getting a prorated portion of it this year, about $255,000. It's quite a bargain considering he's a month shy of 26 and already established himself as a strong member of a strong defense in Chicago.

In Dallas, however, he's starting over. In many ways.

From the football side of it, he must find his niche in a unit that plays a different scheme than the Bears, featuring one defensive tackle instead of two. The Cowboys also have gone 7-1 without him.

"I haven't seen him play so I'm not going to get into, `Oh, the defense is going to be even better with Tank' because we don't know what he can do," said linebacker Bradie James, the defensive captain. "Anything that he can do will be a plus. Hopefully he can come in and provide something."

If nothing else, Johnson will provide relief for Ratliff, who is a bit undersized compared to most jumbo-sized nose tackles.

"Jay being fresher will allow him to do more stuff on third downs," defensive end Chris Canty said. "It'll take some of the beating off him. So I think you'll see Tank's impact over the course of the season, with Jay being fresher toward the end."

Canty said Johnson also is doing a good job of blending into the locker room.

"There really wasn't much to it," Canty said. "In our group, you're either going to fit in or you're not. He's just come in and been himself. We've embraced him, the coaching staff has embraced him, hopefully the Dallas community will embrace him and he'll help us make some plays on the football field."

Added James: "It's all about how you play. If you play well, you'll be accepted a lot faster. That's what we're looking forward to."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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