In Dallas, the conversation around the Cowboys usually centers on the offense. People talk about the passing of Dak Prescott. The running of Ezekiel Elliott. The pass-catching of Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb.
But in 2021, the conversation is changing. A defensive player has stolen the spotlight. Fans and pundits alike have been dazzled by the versatility, athleticism and ferociousness of the 12th overall pick in the 2021 draft. Barring catastrophe, linebacker Micah Parsons is a lock to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year at the NFL Honors on February 10.
But we need to start having another conversation. A talk about a different accolade for the former Penn State standout. DROY may not be the only award that Parsons wins in Los Angeles.
At this rate, Parsons could be the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year as well.
The Cowboys moved to 8-4 on the season and added to their lead on 5-6 Washington in the NFC East with Thursday's 27-17 win over a short-handed New Orleans Saints team. But on a night when the Cowboys offense couldn't run the ball consistently and managed a relatively modest (by its standards) 377 total yards, it fell to the Dallas defense to carry the day.
Carry it they did. Dallas limited the Saints to a lone touchdown in the first 57 minutes while forcing four turnovers (one of which was returned for a score) and notching two sacks. As has been the case so many times this season, Parsons was the star of the show.
For the game, Parsons logged five tackles (two solo), a sack, a tackle for loss and two QB hits. The 6'3", 245-pounder spent more time in the New Orleans backfield than Saints running back Mark Ingram II did.
The sack put Parsons in some truly rarefied air.
It's not like Thursday's game was an aberration, either. The win over the Saints marked the eighth game this season in which Parsons logged at least half a sack. He has had two or more sacks twice and now has at least one sack in five straight contests.
Simply put, rookie edge-rushers aren't supposed to be this dominant this soon. To make it look so easy—especially on a stage as big as playing for the Cowboys. But while Parsons' rampage has left jaws on the floor across the NFL, there's one person it hasn't surprised even a little—Parsons himself.
"I mean, let the eyes be on me," Parsons told reporters. "It ain't going to change my preparation, ain't going to change nothing I did because I was already ready for the moment. Some people are born for it. I believe I was born for it and I just got to play like that."
The wildest part of the Godzilla impression that Parsons has been doing for 12 games? This isn't really the role Dallas drafted him to play.
This isn't to say that Parsons didn't show pass-rushing chops at Penn State. Or that Dallas didn't have plans to use him to get after the quarterback. But Parsons was expected to be mainly an off-ball linebacker. To play inside.
But then the Cowboys were decimated by injuries on the edge, so they kicked Parsons outside—sometimes standing up, other times with a hand in the dirt.
Parsons essentially was thrown into a new position while making the jump from college to the NFL after opting out of the 2020 season at Penn State. And he has been absolutely dominant.
Folks, this just doesn't happen. This is the plot of a movie, not the reality of the NFL.
Again, guess who isn't surprised?
"I challenge myself every week to go out there and be great and find a way to impact the game, whether that's at end or linebacker," Parsons said. "And I feel like it shouldn't matter where I'm at. I've got to find a way to make the money, you know what I mean? And help my team win. So, I'm hungry within myself to be great."
Parsons talks the talk. And walks the walk. And when former NFL safety and current ESPN analyst Matt Bowen watches film, he sees a player who looks nothing like a rookie.
"What jumps out to me is his hand usage, very developed as far as his technique, using countermoves to win, and then you see his high-level traits. A lot of guys have high-level traits. They're explosive, but they can't get home to the quarterback because they can't create that separation. With Micah Parsons, you see that, and then you go to his high-level traits. His ability to bend is ridiculous. He has the short-area speed, which is much more important than long speed for pass-rushers. And then when he closes, you're done."
That's the thing. We have to stop thinking of Parsons as a rookie. Sure, he'll win Defensive Rookie of the Year—quite possibly unanimously. But he's playing as well as any defender in the league. Period.
Are there other deserving candidates? Sure. Myles Garrett of the Cleveland Browns is an all-but-unblockable nightmare on pace for a 20-sack season. T.J. Watt of the Pittsburgh Steelers was runner-up for the award last year and has been every bit as impactful when on the field in 2021. Parsons' teammate Trevon Diggs notched his league-leading ninth interception of the season against New Orleans. Aaron Donald of the Rams. Haason Reddick of the Panthers. Lots of defensive players are having great seasons.
But the list of rookies playing at a DPOY level while essentially playing two positions has one name on it. And Parsons is every bit as critical to his team as any of those veterans.
There's still a lot of football to be played. The "rookie wall" looms for Parsons. But he isn't hearing any talk of a second-half fade.
"People always talk about the rookie wall, but I just keep climbing and climbing because I'm excited to see what's on the other side of that wall," he told reporters.
Parsons undoubtedly climbed all over the Saints on Thursday. During a postgame interview with Fox Sports, he offered this bit of wisdom.
"A wise man once said, 'The great ones figure it out.'"
He certainly appears to have figured out football. And the next thing Parsons may have to figure out is where to put a couple of big trophies.