When Michael Irvin walked to the podium in the interview room at Texas Stadium last Saturday, he wasn't wearing sunglasses.
That was a subtle change in his public persona.
The sunglasses and the mink coat were there when the Dallas Cowboys' wide receiver swaggered into court last March to testify to a grand jury after police found him, a former teammate and two dancers in a hotel room with a quantity of drugs.
That was the old Irvin, who acted as if the rules of society didn't apply to him.
That was the Irvin who, according to a topless dancer's court testimony, told her, "I should not be afraid of the District Attorney's office. I should be afraid of him because he's more powerful."
That was before he pleaded no contest to a felony drug possession charge last July and received four years probation, a fine, 800 hours of community service and a warning from the judge that he would go to jail if he violated probation.
That was before he was suspended for five games by the NFL.
He's back now and on Saturday showed the Minnesota Vikings and any team willing to give him single coverage that he's still the playmaker on the field.
He caught eight passes for 103 yards in the Cowboys' 40-15 playoff victory over the Vikings.
When the Cowboys beat the Green Bay Packers in the NFC title game last January, Irvin uttered an obscenity over the public address system and on national TV during the team's celebration.
He never apologized, saying later, "Sometimes cursing shows the depth of emotion."
Irvin now seems more subdued -- at least when the cameras are on.
After the victory over the Vikings, the Cowboys were, well, the Cowboys.
They were strutting again, after struggling through the regular season with a 10-6 record. They like to show how good they are and then tell you all about it afterward.
Coach Barry Switzer said the team made a statement. Cornerback Deion Sanders said the Cowboys were now the team to beat.
Even safety George Teague, an unlikely hero in the win, said, "If we play like we did today, it doesn't matter where we're at, we're going to win the ballgame."
Irvin had a different message.
He said the only statements to be made were to be made in late January.
"We can say all we want to say, we can think all we want to think," Irvin said. "Late January, man, if you're not there [in the Super Bowl], there's no way you made a statement to anyone but yourself and the media. It don't matter one hill of beans if you're not there in late January. The only time you make a statement is when you win the Super Bowl and you raise your hand."
Irvin wanted to make it clear he's not looking past the NFC semifinal game against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
"When I think about Carolina, I think that it's a great challenge for our offense," Irvin said. "They haven't lost a game in Carolina. Those kind of things you look forward to as players, as champions. That's what makes champions, the challenges."
The Cowboys have Emmitt Smith. The Panthers have somebody named Anthony Johnson.
Irvin, though, was talking as if Dallas was getting ready to play the Packers. Not today's Packers, but the Vince Lombardi Packers.
"You think Carolina cares about the way we beat Minnesota?" Irvin said. "We're going into Carolina. They beat San Fran twice. They're looking at the film saying, 'We're going to tear them up.' "
One thing Carolina probably won't do is play Irvin the way Minnesota did.
"A lot of teams kind of jam me up when I go across the middle; Minnesota chose just not to do that," Irvin said. "They kind of let me run loose, and Troy did a great job of getting the ball there."
Irvin then came the closest to making a statement of his own: "We feel we can pretty much accomplish anything if we put our mind to it. We've just got to make sure we put our mind to it."
For Irvin, keeping his mind on football has to be the tough part. He has to make sure he doesn't get into any more trouble off the field.
He did deny rumors earlier this month he had flunked a drug test; otherwise, there have been no problems since his early season troubles. He is tested three times a week as part of the NFL's drug program.
Irvin, who usually talks to the media only after games, hasn't discussed his troubles since he publicly apologized on the day he was sentenced.
"There's no getting around it. I was wrong. I was wrong. I shall work on being a better father. I shall work on being a better husband," he said last July.
When Irvin was asked after the Minnesota game what it would be like to go back to the Super Bowl after undergoing all the criticism, he said, "It'd be nice to go back regardless, even if they didn't criticize me."
As far as talking about what he has been through, Irvin paused and said, "I want to answer that in late January."
Pub Date: 12/31/96
(Line in parentheses)
49ers at Packers (-5),