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IRVING, Texas - Some might say the Cowboys' defense went into the tank in the last month of the 2006 season.
In an attempt to prevent that from occurring this year, the Cowboys will be bringing a "Tank" of their own for the final eight games.
The Cowboys officially signed suspended defensive tackle Tank Johnson to a two-year contract on Tuesday. The former Bears lineman is two games into an eight-game suspension from the NFL for violating the league's personal conduct policy.
Now that Johnson is signed, his suspension reverts to the Cowboys, whose bye week falls on the NFL's eighth week of the regular season. That means Johnson will not be eligible to play his first game until Nov. 11, when the Cowboys play at the New York Giants, according to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. Johnson will not be able to practice or even work out at the team's facility until Nov. 5, the day after the Cowboys play at Philadelphia in their eighth game of the season.
However, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has the option to reduce Johnson's suspension to six games. There is also a chance the league could count the eighth week of the season, the Cowboys' bye week, as the final week for Johnson's suspension, meaning he could also return for the Nov. 4 game at Philadelphia.
To make room for Johnson on the roster, the Cowboys had to release cornerback Nate Jones.
However, NFL rules state that Johnson must be on the roster for 24 hours before being moved to the Reserve/Suspended list. Once that happens, he will not count on the 53-man roster and the Cowboys would be free to either re-sign Jones if he clears waivers or sign another player.
The fact the Cowboys are willing to release Jones, the team's dime cornerback the first two games, might suggest starting cornerback Terence Newman is getting closer to returning after missing the opening two games with a partially torn plantar fascia in his right foot.
While Newman might have a chance to play in Sunday night's showdown against the Bears, the Cowboys know Johnson won't be playing for the next several weeks.
But having a big defensive tackle for the second half of the season obviously was something the Cowboys felt was needed. The club took a serious hit at nose tackle when starter and team leader Jason Ferguson was placed on injured reserve with a torn biceps that required surgery last Friday.
While the Cowboys have some confidence in Jay Ratliff, a converted defensive end who started and played the majority of Sunday's game at Miami, Johnson would certainly add some size and depth to the position.
But he also brings a somewhat troubled past.
Johnson spent the last three seasons with the Bears, who released him on June 25, shortly after he was pulled over in Arizona for suspicion of driving while impaired. While those charges were eventually dropped, Johnson had a long list of off-field incidents since joining the Bears in 2004. The 25-year-old tackle served a two-month jail sentence for violation of his probation stemming from a previous gun charge.
A second-round pick of the Bears in 2004 out of the University of Washington, Johnson has played in 46 games for the Bears the last three years, helping Chicago develop into one of the best defenses in the NFL. Johnson has nine career sacks, including 3 ½ last season when his playing time increased towards the end of the year after Chicago lost Tommie Harris to injury.
Johnson was able to play in Super Bowl XLI with the Bears last February, recording four tackles and a half-sack. However, he needed a circuit court permission to leave the state of Illinois and travel to Miami for the game after being arrested for further gun-charge violations.
Current Bears coach Lovie Smith, who will face the Cowboys Sunday night, said he is excited to see his former player back in the league.
"I'm very happy that Tank gets another opportunity," Smith told David Smoak on KTBB-AM 600 (Tyler, Texas) Tuesday afternoon. "He'll always be special to me. He helped us a lot here. He made a couple bad decisions. Tank Johnson is not one of the bad guys we've got going around here. He'll help the Cowboys a lot. He's a good football player."
Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said on his weekly radio show (KTCK-AM 1310) Tuesday morning the organization is in a better situation to handle players with troubled pasts such as Johnson now than maybe a decade ago.
"I know over the last four years when Bill (Parcells) was here, we from time to time, would bring a player on that might have fallen in that category," Jones said. "But we've got some things in place now that frankly weren't in place as recently as when a guy like Randy (Moss) or any player came into the league that might have had some questions about.
"We've got some things in place, behavioral-wise, or certainly from the standpoint of any type of overseeing their activities, that weren't in place then. And when you've got those in place, you've got a little better go of it as far as working with players that may have had some issues in the past."
But since Johnson doesn't provide immediate help at the position, the Cowboys likely will continue to start Ratliff, who had two tackles, one fumble recovery and a pass deflection in the team's 37-20 win over the Dolphins.
Unlike Ferguson and even Johnson, Ratliff has more quickness and less size for the normal nose tackles. The Cowboys will have to use more stunts with Ratliff and line up more in the gap than directly over the center.
Behind Ratliff, for now, is Remi Ayodele, who was released by the Cowboys at the Sept. 1 final cuts. But after being claimed and then released by the Falcons, Ayodele re-signed with the Cowboys last week.
"I, of course, was pleased these last two ball games with Ratliff," Jones said. "But you don't lose a player like Ferguson and not leave a hole. You can readily see that if we had a chance to improve what we're doing there, we would."
Only now, the Cowboys will have to wait until midseason to actually see those improvements.
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