What's behind Cowboys rookie Micah Parsons' surge? 'I'm hungry within myself to be great'

FRISCO, Texas -- The match between Micah Parsons and the Dallas Cowboys has been just about perfect so far.

The rookie linebacker (or defensive end, depending on the moment) loves the spotlight and few teams in the NFL gain more attention than the Cowboys, good or bad.

On Thursday night at the Caesars Superdome against the New Orleans Saints (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox/NFL Network), the bright lights will find Parsons.

"I mean, let the eyes be on me," Parsons said. "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."

Playing for the Cowboys can be overwhelming because of the attention. On and off the field, every move is dissected. Some players can deal with the pressure. Others wilt with sensitivity. Parsons, who was the No. 12 overall pick in the 2021 draft, has flourished.

Coach Mike McCarthy said the club has a character breakdown in scouting reports to ascertain whether draftees can handle the rigors of playing for the Cowboys.

"It's very different working for the Dallas Cowboys," said McCarthy, who has been with the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, the Saints and the Kansas City Chiefs in his NFL career. "It's a spotlight like none other."

Parsons is not just a product of the hype that can turn some Cowboys into household names before they ever truly accomplish anything. His production, especially since the bye week (36 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles in the last five games), comes after adding more to his preparation after what he believed were too many subpar moments.

The morning of the first practice following the Oct. 24 bye, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn walked into The Star -- the Cowboys' headquarters and practice facility -- about 6 a.m. He saw Parsons, who would normally get there about 7 a.m., right behind him.

"I said, 'What do we got going on here?'" Quinn said. "He said, 'I'm changing some things.'"

Parsons used the extra time to get more treatment, study opponents more and work out.

"I didn't think I had to change something. I had to find something all by myself," Parsons said. "That's something I had to do on my own. Nobody forced me to do it. I had to go do it because 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. 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."

The results have been noticeable.

In the first game after the bye against the Minnesota Vikings, he had four tackles for loss, a season high. A week later in a loss to the Denver Broncos, he had seven tackles and 2.5 sacks. He had another sack and another tackle for loss against the Atlanta Falcons.

He had two more sacks and a forced fumble against the Chiefs. According to ESPN Stats & Information data, he finished with 12 pressures, tied for the most of any player of the past five seasons, tying Nick Bosa and J.J. Watt, who had similar 12-pressure games in 2019.

In the overtime against the Las Vegas Raiders on Thanksgiving, he had a tackle for loss and a sack in consecutive plays, but a pass interference penalty on third-and-18 kept the Raiders' game-winning drive alive.

"Micah's continued to make big plays for us in big time moments," Quinn said. "And so we count on him for that."

"I feel like I should shine in that moment," Parsons said. "I wanted to be in that moment. I wanted to make the play. I wanted that on my back. I ain't want to shy from it. Those are the moments I live for because those are the moments you remember forever."

Parsons has 67 tackles and 9.0 sacks and is on pace for 103.5 tackles and 14 sacks. While he will play a 17-game season, the last player to hit both marks in a season was Buffalo Bills Hall of Famer Bruce Smith in 1993. Parsons is the 12th rookie since 1999 to have at least nine sacks and 15 tackles for loss in a season and the only rookie defender with more through 11 games was Von Miller, who had 10.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss in 2011 for Denver.

"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," said former NFL safety Matt Bowen, who is an analyst on ESPN's NFL Matchup show. "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."

Parsons' 9.0 sacks are a team rookie record, breaking the mark held by DeMarcus Ware in 2005 but equal to Willie Townes (1966) and Harvey Martin (1973) before sacks became an official stat in 1982. Parsons' 15 tackles for loss are the most by a Dallas defender since Sean Lee had 13 in 2017. His 6.5 sacks in the month of November are tied for the second-most in a single-month in team history. Ware had seven in October 2011.

"He jumps off the tape at you," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "I think more recently at the end position, he's impressive when he rushes. Obviously when he plays at linebacker the same way. I think when he gets on the tackles though and is rushing, he's a handful. You see in different games where he's playing at different spots. Obviously he's fit into their system well."

Parsons is the only player to rank in the top 15 in pass rush win rate and run stop win rate this year, among 109 players with at least 100 pass rushes and 100 run stop plays, according to ESPN Metrics/NFL Next Gen Stats.

Defensive Rookie of the Year seems assured at the moment. What about Defensive Player of the Year? New York Giants Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor (1981) is the only rookie to win the award.

Some of that will depend on if the Cowboys can get out of their current funk having lost three of four. Some of it will depend on how the rest of the current candidates, like the Los Angeles Rams' Aaron Donald, Cleveland Browns' Myles Garrett, New England Patriots' Matthew Judon and, potentially, Cowboys teammate Trevon Diggs, who leads the NFL in interceptions, fare in the final six weeks.

Most of it will depend on how Parsons performs, especially as the games get bigger.

"I think he can because of the production," Bowen said. "And what you are seeing on top of that now, if [you] had a discussion with someone and asked, 'Who's the best edge rusher?' and a lot of people will say Myles Garrett and I'd agree with that. But if you take Myles Garrett out, is Micah Parsons next? I think that's a valid argument."

After the Saints' game, the Cowboys have one more prime-time game, Dec. 26 against the Washington Football Team. A week later, they play the NFC-leading Arizona Cardinals in a game that could determine playoff seeding.

As the games get more important, more attention will be paid to Parsons. That's fine with him.

"At the end of the day, it's just football," Parsons said. "It's something I've been doing my whole life and people have been watching me play football my whole life. It's just a few extra eyes."