Professional football is a career choice that comes with 16 performance evaluations and a vanishingly small window of time before forced retirement rears its ugly head. If you have any intentions of moving up the ladder, you better make the most of every little opportunity you get.
That's exactly what second-year defensive lineman David Irving did in Green Bay. If you blinked, let's say 19 times, during the game you might have missed Irving even stepping on the field. Then again, you'd also have missed some of the biggest plays of the game. Despite playing only 19 defensive snaps, Irving managed to sack Aaron Rodgers, force three fumbles and recover one, record four tackles, and bat down a pass attempt. Altogether, it earned him the title of NFC Defensive Player of the Week, an honor no one would have expected for him going into the matchup.
Head coach Jason Garrett called the production over just 19 snaps "record breaking." The Cowboys can only hope that Irving's performance is more than just a flash in the pan. They're clearly in need of a primary defensive lineman who can be an every-down threat to disrupt opposing passes, and they would prefer to develop one of their younger players into that guy.
It's far too early to predict Irving has that potential, but he made an impact at a high rate for the time he was on the field. Forcing three fumbles in any game is impressive, and it's a trait that defensive line coach and former Cowboy Leon Lett knows a little something about.
"You've got to get the ball," Lett said. "We work on that daily. It's showing now. For me, that's a big deal because in those Super Bowl games, I could see the ball. It looked like a basketball. That's what David is doing, too."
Despite apparent skills, the odds weren't exactly in Irving's favor coming into the 2015 draft. He was dismissed from the football team for an off-the-field incident prior to what would have been his final season at Iowa State. After going undrafted, he was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs before eventually being placed on their practice squad prior to last season. On Sept. 29 of last year, the Cowboys signed Irving off of the Chiefs' practice squad as a backup defensive tackle. He was used sparingly, but remained in the mix as part of coordinator Rod Marinelli's defense.
The return on investment for a young, unproven defensive player is always an unknown, but the 6-foot 7-inch Irving clearly had qualities that were worth monitoring to see if they could translate into performance.
"David has come a long way since we got him here," Garrett said. "He's a talented guy. He's big. He's long. He's quick. He's fast. He's explosive."
Two questions arise naturally when a player like Irving has a breakout game similar to the one he had against the Packers. The first is will he be given more opportunities? Irving only exceeded 19 snaps in five of his 12 games last season. The second question is will he be able to show consistency?
In Garrett's mind, Irving did one specific thing in Green Bay: He raised the bar for himself.
"We all said the same thing to him," Garrett said. "'The good news is you showed up in the game. The bad news is you showed up in the game. Now you've established a standard for yourself and what we expect from you in terms of production.'"
Irving laughed when asked if his stat line against the Packers was the new standard of performance for himself.
"Trust me, if that's the standard I'm probably going to get cussed out a lot," he said, "but Marinelli's going to hold me to it, I'm pretty sure."
Garrett's real concern is a long-term mentality.
"What you want to maintain is the professionalism and discipline and intensity each and every day," he said. "That will allow you to play at your best."
Whether or not Irving is able to replicate his performance in Green Bay, the positive sign is that he is clearly a worthwhile option. Player development takes energy, money, and time that could be spent on other players. At the very least, Irving looks like he's worth that investment, even if his role remains small for the time being.
"I had to play that role for a while," Lett said. "He's making the best of his reps. He'll probably get more because of that."