On Tuesday afternoon — two months before training camp — the Dallas Cowboys 2017 defense suffered a huge blow. The NFL has suspended David Irving, perhaps the Cowboys' most physically gifted pass rusher, for the first four games of the upcoming season. Irving, according to the league, violated the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy.
Irving, plucked off the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad in September 2015, developed into a force for the Cowboys during 2016 — sometimes. While lacking the stamina to play effectively for more than 30 or so snaps in a game, Irving proved himself capable of taking over contests, as he did against the Packers on Oct. 16 and against the Buccaneers on Dec. 18.
Against the Packers, Irving forced three fumbles, sacked Aaron Rodgers once and batted down a pass, earning NFC Defensive Player of the Week despite being on the field for only 19 plays. Against the Bucs, Irving saved the tottering Cowboys with a dominating fourth quarter, shutting down Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston repeatedly as Tampa Bay tried to get back in the game.
Heading into 2017, the Cowboys expected Irving to be an influential and more frequent contributor to an improving defensive line. Irving's versatility and freakish athleticism allow him to play all four positions along the defensive line, giving Rod Marinelli game-planning and strategic flexibility. For Irving's presence to be felt, however, he has to be on the field. Monday's decision makes that unlikely, although Irving is reportedly appealing the suspension.
Irving's ban is the latest in a bad trend for Cowboys defensive players. Randy Gregory, the only Cowboys line player capable of challenging Irving on pure physical talent is suspended for at least the entire 2017 season for marijuana use. That comes after Gregory missed the first 14 games of the 2016 regular season due to suspension. Rolando McClain, DeMarcus Lawrence and Greg Hardy have all missed significant time due to suspension over the last two years, as well. Since 2014, the Cowboys have lost 88 man games to suspension, pending the result of Irving's appeal.
While NFL players rarely win appeals of league suspensions, an NFL.com reporter said Tuesday afternoon that Irving's failed test stems from a tainted supplement with which he had a marketing deal. It is unclear whether than information, if true, will affect the NFL's disciplinary process.
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