The Dallas Cowboys have signed the suspended defensive tackle, Terry Johnson (Washington), to a two-year deal Tuesday, which brings future depth to the nose tackle position but also a fair share of questions.
“I’m real excited, man,” said Johnson, as he waited for a taxi to take him to the airport Tuesday afternoon. “I can move forward. It’s a process I knew was going to take some time, but I’m excited to reach this point.”
Dallas owner and general manager Jerry Jones, who was traveling after Johnson signed, and coach Wade Phillips were not available for comment. Johnson is believed to be only the second player to have signed as a free agent while under suspension.
Running back Mike Cloud signed with New England in 2003 but had to miss the first four games for violating the league’s policy on banned substances.
Under league rules, the Cowboys had to put Johnson on the active roster for a day before he would move to the reserve/suspended list, so they waived cornerback Nate Jones. Should Jones clear waivers, he could be brought back.
The difficult question is when Johnson will be able to make his debut.
According to the NFL, Johnson, who has already served two games of an eight-game suspension for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy, cannot play until Nov. 11 at the New York Giants, because that is the Cowboys’ eighth game. However, the Cowboys’ bye week is Oct. 28 (Week 8), and if he had remained unsigned until then, he would have been eligible to play Nov. 4 at Philadelphia.
It could all be moot if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reduces Johnson’s suspension to six games, which remains an option. When Goodell announced he was suspending Johnson on June 4, he left open the possibility of reducing the penalty, but Johnson will have to apply for reinstatement early next month.
A June arrest for driving while impaired in Gilbert, Ariz., could adversely affect the chances of the suspension being shortened, but those charges were eventually dropped. If Goodell lessens the suspension to six games, then Johnson could be available Oct. 21 against Minnesota.
The Cowboys will pay Johnson a prorated base salary of $510,000 this year, depending on how many games he plays, and he will earn a $605,000 base salary in 2008 with the chance to earn more money through incentives. He is not paid during the suspension, nor do league rules allow him to be at the team’s Valley Ranch facility to work out.
The Cowboys’ need for Johnson became greater when starting nose tackle Jason Ferguson was lost for the season with a torn right triceps. With Jay Ratliff the starter and inexperienced Remi Ayodele as the backup, Johnson was the best alternative available. In 46 games with Chicago, Johnson had 63 tackles and nine sacks, but he has never played in a 3-4 scheme the Cowboys’ use.
Before signing, Johnson, 25, met with Jerry and Stephen Jones and also had a physical. His past, which included a February stay in jail for violating probation stemming from a gun charge, is certainly an issue. Before the 2004 draft, the Cowboys removed him from their draft board because of character issues, although Chicago drafted him in the second round.
In November 2005, he was arrested for concealed possession of a handgun, and he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge and was given 18 months probation. Three months later he was charged with aggravated assault and resisting arrest, but the charges were dropped.
Last December, he was arrested for possessing unlicensed weapons and charged with violating his probation. A Cook County (Ill.) judge placed him on home confinement and prevented him from driving by himself or leaving the state.
Shortly after Super Bowl XLI, Johnson pleaded guilty to violating his probation and was sentenced to 120 days in jail, and he was released May 13.
“I would say he looks at this as a chance to start over, and not everyone gets that in life,” said agent Jerrold Colton, who also represents the Cowboys’ Anthony Henry and Pat Watkins. “That’s a special opportunity that is precious, and he must take advantage of it because there may not be a chance like that again.
“He is extremely appreciative of the Cowboys and determined to reward them for their faith in him.”
In the Jones era, the Cowboys have taken their share of chances on players considered character risks, including defensive linemen Dimitrius Underwood, Alonzo Spellman, Leonardo Carson and Jermaine Brooks, with differing levels of success.
Jones believes the Cowboys have one of the best player-development programs in the NFL, and consultant Calvin Hill met with Johnson on Tuesday.
“I see him being a major influence in a lot of respects,” Johnson said. “He’s a great guy, and I’m excited about getting a relationship with Calvin.”