FRISCO, Texas — A week ago, Micah Parsons sensed what was coming against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
“I feel like as far as we go, these are going to be my best games,” Parsons said three days before the Dallas Cowboys would beat the Buccaneers 31-14. “That’s just because … I want it. Regular season is cool. You guys get all hyped up.
“But this is where legends are made.”
The edge rusher/linebacker had a sack of Tom Brady and pressured him nine times. He had two pass deflections and two tackles for loss. He was everywhere when it mattered most.
“You felt him all night,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said.
Parsons plays the third playoff game of his career Sunday when the Cowboys take on the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round (6:30 p.m. ET, Fox). In last season’s home wild-card game against the Niners, he had nine tackles and a tackle for loss but no sacks and no pressures, as San Francisco left AT&T Stadium with a 23-17 win.
“I just kept reiterating throughout the week and throughout the course of the game that he drives this thing,” safety Jayron Kearse said. “He’s being Micah, everything is smooth. Everything is smooth. He can singlehandedly disrupt the entire offense. We saw that last week, and I don’t have any doubt in my mind that he’s … going to come back this week and have an even bigger chip on his shoulder, being what went on last year and how it ended for us.”
Parsons’ second season might not have been as electric as his first, but the 2021 12th-overall pick had 13.5 sacks in 2022 — more than he had as rookie (13). He was credited with 69 quarterback pressures, 27 more than he had as a rookie. He had three forced fumbles, matching his rookie output, and three fumble recoveries, three more than he had as a rookie. He scored his first touchdown on a fumble return against the Chicago Bears in Week 8.
He was named a first-team All-Pro for the second straight season, joining Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor as the second defensive player since the 1970 merger to be so honored his first two seasons.
Parsons has been compared in his first two seasons to NFL defensive greats Taylor, DeMarcus Ware, Derrick Thomas and Clay Matthews — and he has shied away from none of it.
“There’s always that thing where they say, ‘I don’t want you to be like me. I want you to be better than me.’ So my goal is to be the best,” Parsons said. “It’s not to be representing. I want to be in my own category.
“Like you don’t put Kobe [Bryant] in the same category as you do LeBron [James in the NBA]. Or you don’t put LeBron in the same category. Even though you’ve known them as great players, they’re not in the same box. They created their own style, their own vision of how they want to play the game. That’s how I want to be remembered. I want to bring my own style, my own vision, my own passion for the game.”
Taylor is considered by many to be the best defensive player in NFL history. Thomas is in the Hall of Fame. Ware, the Cowboys’ all-time leader in sacks, could be chosen for the Hall of Fame next month. Matthews won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers and was a dynamic pass-rusher before moving off the ball later in his career.
Parsons has pieces of all of them in his game.
McCarthy was on the Kansas City Chiefs‘ staff when Thomas tormented quarterbacks, and he coached Matthews in Green Bay for 10 years.
“There are so many things that he does that reminds me of Derrick,” McCarthy said. “Derrick had such tremendous leg strength and his ability to bend, particularly coming around the corner, and Micah has that same trait. Derrick was so powerful. I just remember, Derrick was a huge weight room guy too.
“So, just his leg strength and his ability to really make the tackle on the second and third moves. I was with Derrick later in his [career], probably at the peak of his career, 1993 to 1998. That’s a great comparable when you just talk about pure, gifted pass rush and having everything — the speed, the quickness, the power and redirection — which Micah definitely has.”
In 2009, Matthews was named the Defensive Rookie of the Year, like Parsons was last season. He was named a first-team All-Pro in his second season and was a six-time Pro Bowler in 10 seasons with the Packers. Out of necessity, the Packers moved him off the ball, and he continued to flourish.
While Parsons played mostly on the edge this season, he played 15 snaps at linebacker against the Buccaneers, his most since Week 10.
“You want to make sure those guys have plenty of opportunities to impact the game,” McCarthy said.
Said veteran Cowboys linebacker Anthony Barr of Parsons’ versatility, “I think it just keeps the offense a little off balance. Obviously, he’s going to be the focus most weeks. When you don’t know where he’s going to be, I think that kind of changes things a little bit.”
Offenses knew where Taylor would be during his Hall of Fame career with the Giants. It did not matter. He was going to affect games with sacks, pressures, interceptions or tackles in key moments. Against the Buccaneers, Parsons had a tackle for loss on the first snap and drew a holding penalty two plays later, setting a tone for the Cowboys’ defense.
The comparisons between Taylor and Parsons started last year when Parsons was trying to become the first rookie to win the Defensive Player of the Year award since Taylor in 1981. When the Cowboys met the Giants earlier this season on Monday Night Football, Taylor came away impressed.
“He’s playing pretty well,” Taylor told WFAA-TV in Dallas before the game. “Let’s see if he can keep it up for doggone 13 years.”
Two days later, Taylor tweeted: Parsons is “special.”
And that @MicahhParsons11 is special…can’t wait to see everything you achieve young man. God bless 👊🏿
— Lawrence ‘LT’ Taylor (@LT_56) September 28, 2022
The most logical comparison has been to Ware because of the Cowboys ties. Over the last two years, Ware has tutored Parsons on the inner workings of pass rushing.
“One thing I see that he’s developing is his get-off,” Ware said. “The first step is everything, and he’s starting to get to the point where he can blow past guys in his first step and get to the point that I used to and get those tackles to open up. He’s more of a power guy than I’m seeing. His leg motor is really powerful and once he gets underneath guys he keeps accelerating.”
Because he played more on the line of scrimmage this season, Parsons’ body took more of a beating.
“I’d say the trench warfare is definitely way tougher. It’s a harder job,” Parsons said. “I’m doing certain movements that my body’s probably not used to, and you got to build muscle and build callus for it, build that toughness in it. The more I keep doing it, the more I’m getting used to [it], and the more I’m learning the position, I get better.”
He also saw more attention in terms of double-teams or quick hits from tight ends or chips by running backs.
“It’s not going away anytime soon,” McCarthy said.
Ware went through the same thing in Dallas and excelled. But Ware solidified his Hall of Fame résumé with the Denver Broncos. In the run to winning Super Bowl 50, Ware had 3.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hits, including seven against Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game.
“The playoffs is when you solidify your hard work,” Ware said. “You can make the Pro Bowl. Cool. You can have a 20-sack season. Cool. But when you win a Super Bowl, that’s forever. That’s tagged with something that lasts forever with that trophy.”
And that’s what Parsons is chasing now, along with wanting to be considered one of the greats.
“My goal,” Parsons said, “is the Super Bowl, bro.”