After a 4-1 start and a pleasantly surprising number of turnovers, it's easy to spread around the credit for the Dallas Cowboys' strong defense thus far this season. But coming off of a nightmarish defensive performance for most of the 2020 season, the reality is that one man, Dan Quinn, was brought in to fix the defense, and he was given one significant defensive addition to help him do that: Micah Parsons.
That's a lot to ask of a man who doesn't suit up (except, apparently in practice sometimes when he'll throw on a helmet to work with his players), and it's even more to ask of a 22-year-old linebacker. But Parsons' personality is almost as apparent as his unmatched speed. He knows how to find the guy with the ball and he wants to get to him, especially when it's the quarterback.
Since just about the moment he was drafted, Quinn has been honing that eagerness in Parsons and shaping it into various ways he could unleash on offenses. The results have spoken for themselves: Parsons has 3.5 sacks and 20 tackles in five games.
Parsons said on Wednesday that he was playing middle linebacker when he first showed up to Cowboys' activities in the spring. Quinn told him he wanted to get him a rep along the defensive line and Parsons remembers putting "a good move on the tackle" and Quinn telling him "I like that." Then, in training camp, Quinn would pull Parsons aside to tell him "I want to see you do this..." before sticking him at defensive end or lining him up someplace he wasn't used to.
"I think he was just grooming me and grooming me until he could see that he believed in me," Parsons said.
Now, barely a month into his rookie seasons, Parsons claims that Saturday pregame meetings with Quinn approaching him will sounds like this:
Quinn: Hey, new game plan, you ready for it?
Parsons: Of course.
Quinn: Look over it tonight.
Parsons: I'll be ready.
Quinn: You always are
"That's the type of relationship we have now, " said Parsons, who compared Quinn to Brent Pry, the defensive coordinator at Penn State who converted him from a high school defensive end to a college linebacker. "I built that trust in him. And I have trust that he'll always put me in a position where I can succeed and help the team succeed."
The franchise trusts Parsons and the rest of the linebacker core to produce results enough to release former Pro Bowler Jaylon Smith in the middle of the season. Even with the absence of DeMarcus Lawrence, Parsons is helping the defense pressure quarterbacks, whether by lining up opposite of Randy Gregory or overwhelming offensive tackles by lining up next to each other. Lining up next to Gregory creates one-on-one opportunities for one of them, Parsons said, and winning those matchups is how the defense makes huge plays.
Parsons will have a chance this week to take down a fellow rookie at quarterback, and while one might assume he's relishing the potential opportunities, he claims he's just as likely to take down an MVP behind center.
"I really feel like it don't matter who is the quarterback," he said. "I'm not going to specifically say Mac Jones will struggle with it. It could be anybody. It could be [Patrick] Mahomes. I think it could cause trouble for any scheme you're trying to do."
The solution to success was made simple by any fan or media member coming into this season: If the defense could improve enough, the offense could lead this team to the playoffs. Parsons, who says "The Super Bowl is Mount Everest and we're still at the bottom" was Dan Quinn's most highly touted weapon to accomplish that goal. He looks to already know how to utilize that weapon.
"He lets me use my speed and play reckless," Parsons said. "He allows me to play to my strengths."