'I've never seen nothing like it': Cowboys' Micah Parsons makes bid as NFL's top defensive player

ARLINGTON, Texas – After leaving his fingerprints on another romp with another monster performance, Micah Parsons was left to explain himself. This might seem simple enough: Wreak havoc. Blow up game plans. Kill the quarterback.

Yet as he begins his third pro season with the Dallas Cowboys, Parsons realizes that it’s deeper than that.

“I’m just hungry,” Parsons said following the 30-10 beatdown of the New York Jets at AT&T Stadium, which not only improved Dallas’ record to 2-0 but added a layer of reputation to a defense led by its star edge rusher. “It doesn’t matter where I’m at, I’m coming. I don’t care if I’m gassed out, my lungs hurt. It’s mind over matter. Every time I’m out there, I seize every opportunity. I take this extremely to heart.”

It shows. On Sunday, Parsons punished poor fill-in quarterback Zach Wilson with two sacks and four other quarterback hits. Three of his four tackles were for lost yardage. He batted away a pass. And he stripped Dalvin Cook of the football while stopping a sweep, then recovered the fumble.

“He was just a wrecking crew today,” marveled Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy.

Added cornerback Stephon Gilmore: “He’s special. Like I’ve told you all before, I’ve never seen nothing like it.”

New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson gets off a pass under pressure from Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons during the first half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Aug. 17, 2023.

Through the first two weeks of the season, Parsons has arguably established himself as the fron-runner for Defensive Player of the Year honors. Sure, it’s way early in this grind. But with the Cowboys yielding just 10 points through two games – okay, the Jets offense sans Aaron Rodgers wasn’t exactly the best test – and Parsons being the Alpha Dog in that mix it is apparent the bar is raised.

Last year, the top defensive honor went to Nick Bosa, the San Francisco 49ers defensive end who led the NFL with 18 ½ sacks. In previous years, the award has gone to T.J. Watt of the Pittsburgh Steelers and his now-retired brother, J.J. And Aaron Donald, the Los Angeles Rams’ amazing D-tackle, collected the hardware so often that he pretty much owned the trophy for a few years.

Now Parsons, tied for second in the NFL with three sacks, seemed poised to join such company in part because he keeps getting better. Since the Cowboys drafted him 12th overall from Penn State in 2021, then discovered the pass-rushing gift that his college coaches ignored, Parsons has demonstrated what all that hunger can produce. On Sunday, in his 35th game, he matched Shawne Merriman and Aldon Smith for most multi-sack games (10) over that span to start an NFL career.

It’s part of a larger picture. With defensive coordinator Dan Quinn pushing the buttons, Parsons has connected with the right coach at the right time. Quinn, who once coordinated the Seattle Seahawks’ championship (and championship-contending) Legion of Boom defense, has creatively used Parsons from various angles all across the defensive formations. This ignites a big-play defense that has had led the NFL in takeaways dating to the 2021 campaign, and currently leads the league with seven takeaways while posting 10 sacks, tied with Washington for the league lead. The unit ranks second in the NFL for fewest yards allowed and second for fewest points allowed (pending Cleveland’s outcome at Pittsburgh on Monday night).

“We’re off to an outstanding start,” McCarthy said. “The pressure and the takeaways are at an incredible level after two games. This group has taken it up a notch clearly from last year.”

The Cowboys are tweaking their offense with quarterback Dak Prescott aiming for more efficiency and McCarthy assuming the play-calling duties once held by since-departed coordinator Kellen Moore. Yet for all of the potential firepower of the “Texas Coast” offense, the Cowboys are increasingly carried by the defense.

And there’s no dispute that Parsons is the best player on that unit, if not the entire team.

“I went against these guys for all of spring and into training camp, and it was not easy,” Prescott said. “So, it’s just awesome to see the fruits of the labor coming in and against another team for those guys.”

Although the Jets were without Rodgers (a results-documented Cowboys killer), the defense did a number in shutting down a running game powered by the 1-2 punch of Cook and Breece Hall. Last Monday, on the night the Jets lost Rodgers to a ruptured Achilles tendon, Hall rushed for 127 rushing yards and Cook chipped in with 30. On Sunday, they combined for 16 yards on eight carries.

Parsons saw that as progress, showing a dimension that complements the pass-rush prowess.

“This offseason, we committed to say we’re going to make these guys catch the ball,” Parsons said, mindful that Wilson passed for just 170 yards with a 38.1 passer rating. “We’re going to force them to let us rush. When we come down and set the tone and say, ‘We’re not going to let you run on us,’ and then go get our sacks, that changes everything.

“To all of the teams with those gameplans, come on. Run at me, run at whoever. We coming.”

No, Parsons didn’t suddenly enter the transfer portal to join Coach Prime at Colorado. But like Deion Sanders once did while starring in the secondary, Parsons has brought some special sizzle to the Dallas defense.

He figures he still has to make strides to tighten up his total game. Parsons nearly returned the fumble by Cook for a 37-yard touchdown after collecting the football, rising to his feet and racing to the end zone. It would have provided a signature highlight of a stuff, strip, scoop and score. But upon further review, the call was reversed and Parsons was ruled down by contact after he recovered the ball.

Parsons got in a rep nonetheless for streaking to pay dirt. But even with this, he’s seeking perfection.

“I definitely think I’ve still got my running back skills,” he said. “It’s a little rusty. I want to be more fluent in my cuts backs and my jukes, but we’ll take it how we get it.”

And take it as far as they can go.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dallas Cowboys' Micah Parsons makes bid as NFL's top defensive player