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He has the damn ball. Now what will he do?

For much of the hour it took to introduce Keyshawn Johnson to the Dallas media, most everyone in the room deferred to the Cowboys' newest wideout, who was all too happy to talk and talk and talk. At times he was challenged--asked about his often obstinate personality, about the perception that it was hubristhat forced the Bucs to deactivate him last season and then ultimately trade him to the 'Boys in exchange for Joey Galloway. Through it all, he remained in total control, fielding the queries expertly, deflecting many of them with humor and quick wit.

One reporter, whom none of the regulars recognized, was painfully obsequious, telling him that they'd known each other since Johnson's days at USC. If he was trying to curry favor or blunt Johnson's tongue, he failed. "You know me, huh?" Johnson said, grinning mischievously. "Well, I don't know you."

The room roared, but not as much as when the Jones family joined in. Jerry and Stephen flanked Johnson. The owner did a good amount of talking, but Stephen, the club's executive vice president, mostly remained quiet. He was, as it turned out, picking his spots with care.

"I don't know why I keep wanting to call him coach Jones," Johnson said. Jerry looked on, red-faced--he knew exactly what we were all thinking.

"That's OK," Stephen said, making the joke the rest of us were dying to, "he likes that."

And so it went. And so,we hope, it will continue to go. Because while the Cowboys were vastly improved last season in Bill Parcells' first year as head coach, they were also mighty bland. That probably has as much to do with the understanding that players rarely win Big Bill's respect by being "personalities" as the fact that the 'Boys had precious few personalities to unleash in the first place. It has been years since the Cowboys walked with definite swagger, and longer still since they mugged for the cameras and said anything worth remembering. They have, for too long, been a shell of an organization that survived on reputation and that (in)famous star.

But things are changing, reverting to their old form. Once again they have a high-profile head coach and a brash, mouthy wide receiver. Sure, they're short a quarterback who can actually throw the ball and a running back who can make it past the line of scrimmage before falling down, but it's a start. Before you know it, they'll be nailing strippers two at a time.

Yeah, probably not, but it still figures to be a whole lot looser around here with Johnson in uniform. He might even be good for when they play football.

"He's distinguished himself by making the tough catch and catching balls over the middle," the other "coach" said. When listing Johnson's achievements, J.J. read from a piece of paper like an actor who couldn't remember his lines. "It was a complete no-brainer from the beginning for me. It seemed like a natural from the combine on."

To him, maybe, but not to a lot of others. One man's starting receiver is another man's migraine. The Cowboys had enough of Galloway, who never seemed to make the big catch or go anywhere near the middle of the field, which has a lot to do with why they were so willing to give up on him. But you could easily flip that script. It's doubtful that Bucs head coach Jon Gruden was sad about Johnson's departure. During his time in Tampa Bay, Johnson managed to battle former defensive tackle/individualist Warren Sapp to see who could be more abrasive--a hard thing to do.

The association between coach and player started out OK, and they managed to win a Super Bowl together, but the niceties eventually devolved into rancor. Before long Johnson was popping off, and there were pictures of him and Gruden barking at each other during a game. It had to be worse than anyone really knew, though, because the Bucs deactivated him last season when there were six games remaining. You don't permanently sit a receiver of Johnson's talent when there are still games to be played unless the relationship reached a bottom not seen since Cher split with Sonny. Predictably, Johnson absorbed most of the blame, because that's where it almost always settles--with the player.

"I was watching ESPN--'cause that's what we do--and I saw Iverson say something," Johnson said. He had on a backward hat and a gray Cowboys sweatshirt, which was less interesting than the long, gold chain necklace that dangled nearly down to his belt buckle. Somewhere, Flavor Flav was smiling. "What he said was right--don't always look at the player. It's not always the player's fault.

"I probably could have dealt with Gruden differently in the end. But I think I bent over backward for two years to get along with him. When I found out they had deactivated me, when my agent called to tell me, I was like, good. I said good. I got to get out of that hole and get the monkey off my back."

The mixed metaphor aside, the change might be good for everyone. Johnson caught 45 passes last season in 10 games; he had 76 the previous year and 106 before that. He's not overly fast, and he'll admit it, but he is tough and big and willing to block someone should the occasion present itself--something no wideout has done around here in years. Johnson is also deferential to Parcells, or about as deferential as he's willing to be. The two clearly respect each other, or else Johnson wouldn't be here, not after Parcells traded him to Tampa back when both were with the Jets.

"Yeah, he traded me, but he also explained it to me," said Johnson, who got a four-year deal worth $20 mil from the 'Boys. "It's a different understanding and respect for people like that. You can only get better under a guy like him."

Johnson said he's happy now, that all he wanted was to be understood and properly used and that Parcells will take care of both. He said he doesn't need to catch 100 balls to be happy--he only needs to win. He said that a week ago. He was trying to convince everyone that, come September, you won't see him jawing at his teammates or his coaches about wanting to be more involved. It was a little disconcerting--who wants him to fall in line? But just when it looked like he was self-censoring, he offered this: "I don't have to be the only option. But, at the end of the day, after you look at everything, I may be the only option."

That was more like it. Throw that man the ball. Better yet, throw him a microphone.


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