IRVING, TEXAS — IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin was sitting in the hot tub at Valley Ranch one day last March when coach Jimmy Johnson walked in.
"Now Michael, I want you to be ready for this season because this offense is going to be good for you," Johnson told him.
"Sure, sure," Irvin said.
"I mean it," Johnson said. "This offense is going to be good for you. This offense can take you to the next level."
But neither Johnson nor Irvin expected that level to be this lofty. Through 13 games, Irvin has posted Jerry Rice-type numbers. Irvin leads the NFC with 73 catches and stands alone above the 1,000-yard plateau with 1,161.
"I'm not surprised at my performance," Irvin said. "But I am kind of surprised at the opportunities. These are the balls I envisioned catching when I first came into the league."
When Johnson hired Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator this year, he committed the Cowboys to a wide receiver-driven passing game. Turner brought the offense with him from the Los Angeles Rams, where wideouts Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson had posted huge games and seasons.
Ellard had a 1,000-yard season each of the last three years and Anderson each of the last two. Ellard led the NFC in receiving in 1988 with 86 catches and Anderson has led the NFL in average yards per catch the past two years.
Ellard has gone to three Pro Bowls and Anderson set an NFL record with 336 receiving yards in a 1989 game against New Orleans. Ellard also had a 230-yard game in 1989 against Indianapolis.
"I'd been waiting for an offense where I'd be the primary receiver, where they'd come to me 50 percent of the time like they did at Miami," Irvin said. "I've always wanted to be the go-to guy here."
It became evident to the Cowboys that Irvin would be that guy in the opener against Cleveland when he caught a career-high nine passes for 123 yards and a touchdown.
But it did not become evident to Irvin until the fourth quarter that day. With the Cowboys holding a 20-14 lead and in a third-down situation at the Cleveland 13, a slant to Irvin was called. He needed six yards for the first down and picked up seven.
"That told me I was the guy they were going to come to when they really needed it," Irvin said. "That told me they had confidence in me."
Then it became a matter of rewarding that confidence, which Irvin has done time and again this season. His 73 catches are three short of the club record set by Herschel Walker in 1986, and Irvin's 1,161 yards are 71 short of the club record set by Bob Hayes in 1966.
Irvin can claim both records Sunday, when the Cowboys play the New Orleans Saints.
The offense and his playmaking ability have made Irvin the most productive wide receiver in the NFL this season. He is a shoo-in to become the club's first Pro Bowl wideout since Tony Hill in 1985.
Irvin surpassed his previous bests long ago. In his first three seasons, he never caught more than six passes in one game. He has had seven catches or more in five games this season.
In his first three seasons, Irvin managed two 100-yard games. But he has amassed a league-high five this season, topped by his career-best 157 yards Thursday against Pittsburgh. He also has scored a career-best six touchdowns and has caught the longest pass of his career, a 66-yarder against the Steelers.