IRVING — There was a time last year when Dallas Cowboys safety Matt Johnson didn’t answer his phone for fear of the endless questions from concerned friends and family about his practice status, let alone whether he was ever going to play in a game.“They would call and ask if I was playing this week,” said Johnson, about a frustrating rookie year in which he participated in only a handful of practices and played in no games because of a nagging hamstring injury“It kind of got to the point where I didn’t want to look at the phone. It’s fun now to say I practiced again. I practiced again. I have put a couple of practices together. Hopefully, they will stop asking if I practiced.”So put Johnson’s participation in organized team activities the past two weeks in the category of small victories for him and the Cowboys.But scale back any talk of Johnson being a favorite to help solve the Cowboys’ questions at safety opposite Barry Church.Johnson missed OTAs last year after being drafted in the fourth round out of Eastern Washington because of school. He then injured his hamstring in minicamp, which forced him to miss most of training camp — outside of a few practices leading up to the team’s third preseason game against the St. Louis Rams.Johnson played 12 snaps against the Rams, but reinjured the hamstring in the process.He was placed on injured reserve to start the season before returning to practice in mid-October. Two days before he was set to play in his first NFL game against Carolina on Oct. 21, he aggravated the hamstring injury.Secondary coach Jerome Henderson is just happy to see Johnson on the field and considers him no different than a rookie.“Absolutely by a long shot, this is the longest stretch we have seen Matt,” Henderson said. “He is a rookie. He is not just like a rookie, he is a rookie. In my book, he is rookie just like all the other rookies.”Henderson said Johnson is progressing well, but he didn’t see enough of him last year to have a good opinion about his potential.“He was only out here a day or two and he would have some medical setbacks,” Henderson said.That’s a different point of view than the one held by owner Jerry Jones and members of the front office. They say they saw enough in Johnson in his minimal practice time to not only justify keeping him on the roster most of last season when he wasn’t playing but to also put him in the mix for the starting job at free safety this year.The Cowboys covered themselves via free agency with the signing of veteran Will Allen as insurance and in the draft with the selection of Georgia Southern’s J.J. Wilcox in the third round.But there is no question the Cowboys still believe in Johnson’s starting potential — so much so that vice president Stephen Jones said they would have drafted him in the same spot this year even knowing last year’s struggles.“I feel very fortunate to be in this organization,” Johnson said. “A lot of people who went through what I went through last year would have ended up on the street or ended up somewhere else. I feel very fortunate. You never want to let anybody down. I want to prove them right.”Proving himself to his teammates, coaches and the front office has been Johnson’s motivation ever since the end of the season. It’s why he stayed around Valley Ranch working out and didn’t go home during the off-season.“I stayed here,” Johnson said. “I hope guys noticed that. I’m going to be here. I’m going to stick around. I’m going to work as hard as I can. I want to prove I can be a playmaker and do things like that. Hopefully they are starting to see it. It doesn’t matter until we put the pads on.”Then the proving process starts all over again for Johnson.But at least he doesn’t have to worry about the incessant phone calls and questions about not practicing anymore.
Clarence E. Hill Jr., 817-390-7760 Twitter: @clarencehilljr