FRISCO, Texas - The man who has transformed the Cowboys’ defensive line into one of NFL’s best at sacking quarterbacks doesn’t look the part.
He wears a gold hoop on his left nipple and another in his left nostril. And when the weather gets chilly on bye Cowboys’ east coast trips, he’s been known to wear a gray fox scarf that he’s nicknamed Chester.
But when you’re 6-7 290 pounds and can bend the way Irving can, creating the leverage he uses to be destructive on the football field, then coaches tend to leave room for individual creativity.
Irving, suspended for the season’s first four games for violating the league’s PED policy, has five sacks in three games this season and eight in his last six games.
Irving, plucked off the Chiefs’ practice squad three years ago, will need a big game if the Cowboys are going to beat the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at AT&T Stadium.
“Emotionally, everyone knows that was my first team. It’s gonna be a fun game. those were my boys over there. Most of the time, I don’t know who I’m going against, but I went to training camp with them.
“Had it not been for the Kansas City Chiefs, I wouldn’t be here right now. They’re the only team that called me after the draft.”
Irving, who was kicked out of Iowa State, has transformed himself from a fringe NFL into a restricted free agent at the end of the season in line for a seven-digit payday.
“I have surprised myself,” Irving said. “It’s weird. I’m not shaped like interior and interior defensive lineman, but it has been working.
“When I go against centers and guards I have longer arms and I use it to my advantage. When I use it correctly it works.”
That’s because he can bend like few other defensive linemen Rod Marinelli has ever coached.
“Julius Peppers could do it - not many others,” said Marinelli, referencing the defensive end, who has 151 career sacks.
“Look at how he snaps the head of those guards back, when he comes out of his stance. He creates great leverage when he explodes out of his stance.”
The Cowboys have struggled to rush the passer since Marinelli arrived as the defensive line coach in 2012. He’s been the coordinator since 2015.
The Cowboys have drafted defensive ends such as DeMarcus Lawrence in 2012 and Taco Charlton last April, and they’ve signed free agents such as Jerome Mincey, Benson Mayowa and Greg Hardy.
The Cowboys signed Irving off Kansas City’s practice squad in a never-ending quest to create a pass rush good enough that Marinelli wouldn’t have to blitz.
The Cowboys had been a studying Irving for weeks because of his unique skill set.
Finally, the combination of their need for a defensive lineman and Kansas City’s lack of roster flexibility because of some injuries enabled the Cowboys to sign Irving on Sept 29 during the 2015 season.
“(Former general manager John) Dorsey still hasn’t forgiven me,” McClay said with a smile.
While he was happy wanted him, it was still a chaotic time for Irving.
“I had literally just saved up enough to money to get the furniture moved into my apartment and that next day I had to leave,” Irving said. “I broke the lease and left the furniture. I had to go. It was crazy experience.”
The Cowboys rank fifth in the NFL with 25 sacks, putting them on pace for 57. The Cowboys have had that many sacks in a season once since 1984.
The 2008 Cowboys has 59 sacks. DeMarcus Ware had 20.5 sacks, linebacker Bradie James and defensive end Greg Ellis each had eight sacks and nose tackle Jay Ratliff had 7.5 sacks.
Marinelli hoped Lawrence could become a player who could hit double-digit sacks. Lawrence fought through a nagging back injury that required surgery in the offseason, which is among the reasons he finished with just four sacks last season after serving a four-game suspension to start the season.
But in 2015, he had seven sacks in the last eight games. That’s the player Marinelli hoped he was getting this season and he has.
Lawrence leads NFL with 10.5 sacks, but Irving is the one who injected the entire pass rush with life.
Using Irving at defensive tackle, usually on the same side as Lawrence, means two players on the left side capable of creating havoc and offensive coordinators must alter their blocking schemes to account for them.
Irving’s return moved Maliek Collins to the one technique, which is typically more of a run-stopping position and Tyrone Crawford to right defensive end.
Collins had five sacks as a rookie and told anyone who would listen in the locker room this week that he should’ve had four sacks against Washington.
Crawford has had a sack in three consecutive games.
“I think we’ve finally got the mix we want,” Marinelli said. “All four guys can rush the passer - that’s what you’re looking for - and they’re all homegrown.
“They’ve all been through our offseason. They know how we want to play with effort and chase the ball, and they’ve been through some tough times. That’s important because this is a tough game and you have to know how to handle that.”
Irving knows all about tough times. Right now, he’s focused on the good times that occur when he’s chasing quarterbacks with his boys on the defensive line.