Forty club: Veteran Johnson has the experience to guide Cowboys

Publish date:

• After starting his career with seven seasons in Minnesota, Johnson was traded to Washington in the spring of 1999 for a package that included a first-round pick. The player the Vikings selected with that first-rounder -- quarterback Daunte Culpepper -- recently retired after a nine-year NFL career himself, but Johnson plays on.

• Johnson was drafted by the Vikings in 1992's ninth round, out of Florida State. The NFL draft doesn't even have a ninth round any more, and hasn't been longer than seven rounds since 1993.

• Though everyone thinks of Brett Favre as the Old Man River of NFL quarterbacks, Johnson is actually the league's oldest active quarterback, some 13 months older than the Jets starter. He just doesn't have Favre's gray hair and beard to prove it.

"I hit 40 [last month], and I was telling someone that it's not that different because when I was 30, people thought I was 40 anyway because of the way I run,'' Johnson said Thursday night, in self-deprecating style. "Now that I'm 40, I really still feel 30. The only adjustment you make at my age is you don't drink as many beers as you used to.''

Time has indeed been on Johnson's side throughout his long and unlikely NFL career, and come Sunday, it looks like it'll be his time once again. With Dallas starter Tony Romo nursing a broken pinkie finger on his throwing hand, Johnson has been preparing this week to start for the headline-generating Cowboys at St. Louis. Romo's status got a little less clear-cut Thursday when he practiced on a limited basis and seemingly made inroads toward a return to the lineup, but the smart money still says Dallas plays it cautious with its franchise passer and tosses the keys to Johnson for the Rams game.

"It's been a good week of practice and I'm looking forward to starting on Sunday and playing the game,'' said Johnson, who last started a game in 2006 for Minnesota. "Obviously it's Tony's job and if he can play he should go for it. He's at least working on it. But that's got to be Tony's call. I'm here hanging out and seeing what happens.''

Reading the tea leaves of this particular Dallas drama, my sense is Romo's status is likely to remain an issue right through the hours before kickoff in St. Louis, when the Cowboys will let him take the field in early pre-game warm-ups and test out his injured digit -- under the watchful eye of every TV camera within 100 miles and ubiquitous Dallas owner Jerry Jones.

Then I expect the Cowboys will do the prudent thing and list Romo as their third quarterback for the game, ensuring that a temporary setback doesn't become a long-term one. After that, I expect Johnson will lead Dallas to its fifth win in seven games this season, with the same smart and precise passing game that has helped him go 71-51 as an NFL starter. As for Romo, I'd look for him to be back under center maybe next week, at home against Tampa Bay.

"I still enjoy playing the game, and that's why I've kept playing, and that's why I came here,'' Johnson said. "To have a chance to win with a good team, and play with a bunch of good players. I'm not a guy who's ever been worried about my numbers or my stats. At the end of the day, I only care about winning. I care about having one more point than the other team.''

Johnson, as the only Cowboys player who has earned a Super Bowl ring, has a little cache when it comes to winning. His career-defining win came when he led Tampa Bay to its only Super Bowl title six years ago, and it puts him among the select group of seven active quarterbacks who have won a ring as a starter: Favre, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Kurt Warner and Ben Roethlisberger.

After seeing nothing but preseason action and a bit of mop-up duty so far during his two seasons (2007-08) in Dallas, Johnson is clearly enjoying the opportunity to be front and center once again, especially for a team he considers to be among the best he has ever played for. And that's saying something, given that he has been to the playoffs with all four NFL teams he's been with: Minnesota, Washington, Tampa Bay and Dallas.

"This team was talented enough last year to have the No. 1 seed in the NFC,'' Johnson said. "We're 4-2 this season, and our team has deserved that record. We've played four good games, and a couple where we turned the ball over and didn't do what it takes to win in this league.

"But I knew what I signed up for when I came here. This is Tony's team. I'm here in case something ever happened. I'm happy with my decision to come here and for the chance to play for Jason Garrett. More than anything, for me at this point it's about being with a good team and being with a coordinator you believe in.''

Johnson's sings Garrett's praises, and has since the two spent time together on Tampa Bay's roster in 2004, Johnson's last season with the Bucs and Garrett's last year as a journeyman NFL reserve quarterback. At 42, Garrett is as much a peer of Johnson's as a teacher/mentor.

"What I like about his coaching style is you're able to talk with Jason, and that's the most important thing between a quarterback and a coordinator -- communication,'' Johnson said. "He's an open book, and you're open to speak. That's the test of greatness for a coordinator. If he can get in a quarterback's head and find out what he likes and what he doesn't like and what's best for him.

"With him you get to do the things that you feel comfortable with. That's been so great for Tony for the last year and a half. If you don't like a play, even if it's a play that Jason loves, he doesn't want to call it because he doesn't want you being uncomfortable. I think that's the strength of our quarterback rhythm, that we're all flexible together. It's just a good quarterback room to be in.''

Having known and covered Johnson since he made his first NFL start in Minnesota in Week 2 of 1996, I couldn't help but ask him what it's like playing amidst the circus that is the Dallas Cowboys. Johnson, mind you, played with Randy Moss in Minnesota, Deion Sanders and a bevy of other headline names in Washington, and Warren Sapp and Keyshawn Johnson in Tampa Bay. He knows a thing or two about colorful personalities and the glare of the media spotlight.

But in Dallas, there's T.O. and Pacman, and Jerry, and Tony and Jessica, and HBO's Hard Knocks, and well, you get the point.

"I didn't know beforehand why they really call Dallas America's Team,'' Johnson said, with a laugh. "You don't understand until you're here. I guess it's like Notre Dame football. Dallas just gets way more attention than any other team. Nothing's really different with this team when it comes to what happens and how things go for a football team, that's all really the same team to team. But with the Cowboys, you say boo and it's out there. It's wild.''

There's a certain amount of irony at work this week should Johnson indeed make the Sunday start in St. Louis, home to the 1-4 Rams. Ten years and a handful of weeks ago, it was on that exact same Edward Jones Dome field (then the TWA Dome) that a broken fibula knocked Johnson out of the Vikings starting lineup in Week 2, opening the door for Randall Cunningham's remarkable career renaissance and a 15-1 record-breaking season for Minnesota.

This time, in a reversal of fortunes, someone's else broken bone may be opening the door for a brief renaissance for Johnson, who cherishes the opportunity to become one of the few quarterbacks to start a game in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.

"I think I saw where I'm the 16th NFL quarterback to play until he's 40,'' Johnson said. "I take a lot of pride in that. People ask me all the time what my greatest thrills have been in playing football, and I say two things hand in hand: I say playing until I'm 40, and the other is winning the Super Bowl. They're right there 1-2.''

Johnson, at 40, is only the Cowboys' little-used insurance policy. But for Dallas, it's still pretty good, pretty safe hands to be in.