Boy, that David Irving show in the fourth quarter of the Dallas Cowboys’ win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was something else, wasn’t it? It leads to the obvious question, “Can the Cowboys get some more of that? Because they could certainly use it.”
Oh, and to the semi-casual observer: "Who is this kid, anyway?'' And "Is he ready for the spotlight?''
Irving is smart enough to have answers to some of these questions. He handled that last one in the postgame locker room, playing ignorant by asking back to reporters, "What is 'the spotlight'?''
But he knows what it is. And in this nationally-televised game, he was up to it. Irving was explosive on a near-absurd scale in the last 15 minutes of Sunday’s 26-20 win over the Bucs, making serious impact on just three key plays.
The first came with 13:20 left in the fourth quarter as Irving set up at left defensive end. Facing right tackle Gosder Cherilus, Irving first used leverage to Cherilus’ outside shoulder and then knocked him to the ground as he moved inside. By this time Cowboys tackle Maliek Collins was crashing the pocket too, having shed the Bucs’ right guard. But Irving took advantage of the clear alley Collins created and came in hard to sack Jameis Winston. It was a great example of body control and explosiveness through the line of scrimmage.
A couple of minutes later Irving was at it again, this time speed-rushing Cherilus right into Winston’s path as he stepped up to throw downfield. You might remember that as Jeff Heath’s interception. Irving didn’t connect with Winston, but he was certainly in Winston’s peripheral vision as he made the throw. Did Irving influence the bad throw? Maybe.
But with less than three minutes to play and with the Cowboys up six, Irving left no doubt about whether he impacted Winston. This time Irving was lined up wide left, so wide that he was outside of the tight end there to help Cherilus. It didn’t help. The tight end, Cameron Brate, took off immediately on a route, leaving Cherilus one-on-one with Irving. This time Irving had a full head of steam by the time he and Cherilus met and with practically one arm Irving shoved Cherilus out of his way and had an unabated line on Winston, whom he sacked.
In one quarter Irving had two sacks and for the game he had five quarterback hits. He was a force to be reckoned with and it was a welcome emergence, considering both end DeMarcus Lawrence and tackle Cedric Thornton were out for this game.
But is this a sign of things to come or a mirage, because, as you might recall, we’ve seen Irving impact a game before.
Think back to that Green Bay game in late October. You may remember that Irving had a big play late in that game, too, as he sacked and stripped Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers as the Cowboys’ defense was in the middle of a goal-line stand. The play helped seal the victory for the Cowboys and gave fans a taste of what the 6-foot-7, 273-pound end could do.
In fact, Irving has three sacks on the season and I just wrote about all of them. So what gives? What happened between Green Bay and Tampa Bay?
Well you may also remember that the game after that Packers game that when Irving was thrown out early in the game for fighting with a Browns player. In fact, for the five games after the Packers game Irving did practically nothing statistically. He had one tackle.
Then against the Giants last week Irving started to pick up steam, finishing with three tackles. Then came his explosive fourth quarter against the Bucs.
So is Irving starting to developing into something more than a rotation defensive end? That’s hard to project when you’re talking about an unsigned free agent. The Chiefs signed him in May of 2015, cut him in September right after the preseason ended and then re-signed Irving to their practice squad after he cleared waivers. The Cowboys clearly liked something because a few weeks later they signed Irving off the Chiefs’ practice squad. He ended the season with a fractured left wrist in late December, but not before he ended up with 13 tackles and a half-sack. There’s nothing in that sample that would lead you to believe he was an emerging talent.
In fact, Irving fell through the 2015 draft for reasons that had nothing to do with football, as the Des Moines Register’s Randy Peterson wrote in this 2015 article. Irving didn’t play at Iowa State in 2014, his final college season. He was released from the team after the Veishea Festival in Ames, Iowa, in 2014 turned into a riot. Irving told reporters later than he wasn’t rioting. He was there with friends. Irving was arrested after the festival when a photo of him holding a Stop sign — a sign that had been removed from the ground — popped up on the Internet. To some at ISU, that was his second chance after he was accused of domestic violence against his girlfriend earlier in his ISU career, charges that were later dropped.
Why bring all of that up now? It provides some context to Irving’s slow growth as a player. He had no college home in 2014, no place to hone his skill. In truth, he’s a year behind everyone in what would have been his 2015 NFL Draft class. With every performance like the fourth quarter against the Bucs, he shows he’s starting to catch up.
He's from Compton. His family has a military background. Those inside The Star in Frisco promise that he aims to please, that he's a favorite of Rod Marinelli's even as the two joke about how often Rod yells at the 6-7, 280-pound 23-year-old.
“It’s an honor,” said Irving of being a Cowboy. “I never thought I’d be in the NFL. It’s amazing that I’m here with this group of guys.”
This would be a fine time to keep it up, too, because others in "this group'' are hurting. As mentioned, Lawrence was hurt on Sunday but he hopes to be back for Monday Night Football against the Lions. The Cowboys just learned that end Randy Gregory can practice this week and re-join the lineup, adding further depth to a position group that needs as much as it can get. This front four has been all about trying to get pass rushing help from unlikely sources. Tyrone Crawford leads the team with 4.5 sacks but on Monday may have undergone two MRIs for various ailments. Collins and Benson Mayowa, another young player coming on late this season, each have four. But Mayowa also underwent an MRI for a stinger.
Irving -- playing on a contract that expires after this season and only pays him around $500K -- is now fourth on the team with three sacks.
"He's phenomenal,'' said teammate Dez Bryant of Irving. "He's the truth.''
Maybe. It’s still too early to say that Irving’s career progression counts on him having a hot December. But an NFC East title, a first-round playoff bye and a deep postseason run for these Cowboys? Heck, it would sure help. ... because "the spotlight'' that David Irving pretends does not exist is about to get brighter.