‘Challenge accepted’: How Micah Parsons used a Cowboys loss as inspiration for game-changing play

FRISCO, Texas — Micah Parsons had, according to Next Gen Stats, virtually no chance.

The Philadelphia Eagles were driving in the red zone in the second quarter, employing run-pass option to capitalize on their dual-threat quarterback. The Dallas Cowboys hybrid linebacker/edge rusher was torn: Should he trust that Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts wouldn’t use his legs or hope a teammate stepped up in coverage vs. receiver A.J. Brown?

Parsons tried to do some version of both on the Oct. 16 play, which Next Gen Stats says Brown had a 99.9% chance to earn a first down and a 40.7% chance to score a touchdown. Brown indeed scored a 15-yard touchdown, extending Philadelphia’s lead in what would eventually be a 26-17 win.

Three days later, back at the Star practice facility, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn pulled the second-year All-Pro into his office. Quinn thought back to Parsons’ request after the Cowboys selected him 12th overall in the 2021 NFL draft.

“I want you to coach me hard,” the player had told his coach.

So while Quinn often reprises what he says is the “crazy uncle” role among Parsons’ mentors, he knew this was a chance for a teaching moment. He brought Parsons into his office for a closed-door meeting to discuss: Here are plays Parsons could make and didn’t. Here are ways in which Parsons could use his speed to more effectively capitalize on pursuit strengths.

Self-adjustments, particularly against play action, would be key.

Dallas Cowboys star linebacker Micah Parsons is tied for the league lead with seven sacks this season, and that's only part of the story. (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Dallas Cowboys star linebacker Micah Parsons is tied for the league lead with seven sacks this season, and that's only part of the story. (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Parsons’ moment arrived early in the fourth quarter against the Lions on Sunday. In retrospect, the Cowboys’ 24-6 victory featuring five second-half takeaways seems evident. But when the Lions drove into the red zone early in the fourth quarter, they trailed by just 4 points. On second-and-5 from the Cowboys’ 15, Lions quarterback Jared Goff faked a handoff right before completing a screen pass left to tight end Brock Wright. Micah Parsons hovered near the 25-yard line as Goff threw — then he bolted. Parsons outraced several teammates, and multiple reports said he topped out at 20.41 mph, per Next Gen Stats. The result: Parsons slammed Wright to the ground 1 yard short of the end zone.

The following play, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence punched the ball loose from Lions running back Jamaal Williams’ grasp. Cowboys linebacker Anthony Barr recovered. Dallas would complete its run of 21 unanswered points, each touchdown scored on a turnover-gifted possession.

Quinn thought to himself: Would the fumble draw so much attention that no one remembered Parsons’ unstastically alluring yet undoubtedly point-quashing pursuit?

Quarterback Dak Prescott, in his postgame news conference, wasn’t asked about Parsons when he praised the defender’s “relentless effort.”

Head coach Mike McCarthy, on Monday, called Parsons’ tackle “the play of the game.”

And a college coach texted Quinn to tell the coordinator: He was showing his team that play and another from Parsons as exemplary of style, finish and effort.

“The type of energy and effort plays that can change a game,” Quinn said. “And you don’t know when they’re going to happen. You just got to go.

“And he definitely went.”

Parsons credited his coordinator with inspiring the juice.

“Sitting down with Q [Quinn] the past week, he was talking to me about plays I could make if I just use my speed and chase-down, knowing that’s my superpower,” Parsons said. “We kind of had that father-son talk this week. He challenged me and I told him, I said: ‘You challenged me and I’ll never let you down.’

“Stuff like that I credit to Q because he’s a person who means a lot to me and I just hate to let him down. So when I’m out there, I try to give everything I got for him.”

Perhaps Parsons would be spectacular even if he wasn’t motivated by his coordinator or their closed-door session. The defending Rookie of the Year earned All-Pro honors for his inaugural campaign after collecting 13 sacks, 84 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 30 quarterback hits and three forced fumbles. Cowboys coaches learned quickly last year that despite Parsons’ 18 months off of football (he opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19), he had skill, motor and rare competitive spirit.

And he started this season even faster, with four sacks in the Cowboys’ first two games. Parsons has since faced more double and triple teams — the Lions’ offensive holding call in the final 2 minutes of the third quarter, for example, was another attempt to neutralize Parsons that doesn’t register as a sack — but still has recorded seven sacks, tied with San Francisco 49ers' Nick Bosa for most in the league. Parsons has forced two fumbles as well, to Bosa's zero.

Pro Football Focus grades him second only to the Cleveland BrownsMyles Garrett among league edge rushers, with a 91.1 overall defensive grade and 91.5 pass-rush mark.

What excites Quinn: Parsons still itches to get better. He didn’t take his early success and rest on his laurels, instead channeling self-awareness and humility to acknowledge moments like Brown’s Philadelphia touchdown in which the Eagles revealed an area for growth.

“This season he’s made a lot of impact plays already. I wanted him to know: There is another space you can go to,” Quinn said. “He is such a competitor that he did not like to watch [the Eagles plays]. And the next words out of his mouth were: 'Challenge accepted.'”

As Wright traveled toward the corner end zone not wholly unlike Brown the week prior, Parsons reached another gear and closed in.

“He just made the decision to say, 'I can go make this play,'” Quinn said. “I was really proud of him."

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein