Nobody’s Playing Better Football Than Micah Parsons
11:19 AM EDT on September 18, 2023
Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons is two games into his third season as a pro, and every time he walks off the field it becomes harder and harder not to say that he's the best football player on the planet.
There are statistics to support such a case. Parsons, who was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2021, has 29.5 sacks in 35 career games, has hit the quarterback 62 times, and has forced seven fumbles. But the feeling I get from watching Parsons—that I am witnessing a defensive player who I may one day remember as among the best I've ever seen—comes not from the fact that he makes game-altering plays and accrues impressive statistics, but from how he does those things.
Sunday's game between the Cowboys and Jets offered a perfect example of this. Dallas won 30-10 and Parsons finished the game with two sacks and a forced fumble that he recovered himself. That's a great game, if one that many great defensive players could put together while feasting on Zach Wilson and the Jets. But nobody makes two sacks and a forced fumble look as awe-inspiring as Parsons can.
Many great edge rushers have populated recent NFL history, and when I think of the quintessential sack artist, I see in my head a guy built like an NBA power forward exploding out of his stance at the far edge of the line of scrimmage, sprinting a parabolic route around the tackle's outside shoulder, and then either wrapping the quarterback up with a long arm or spinning back inside the tackle to flatten the QB. Parsons can do this too, but what stands out is how often he generates pressure through the middle of the offensive line, where it should, in theory, be much easier to block a 6-foot-3, 245-pound linebacker. Sometimes Parsons gets past the guards by stunting and using his speed ...
... but he's just as likely to line up over the center and blur past him with a simple head fake or shift of the hips:
Watching someone like T.J. Watt or one of the Bosa brothers attack the quarterback can sometimes feel like watching someone try to win a Dungeons & Dragons dice roll. It's not that those guys aren't great athletes, but that their success or failure on a given play often feels dependent on a combination of discrete skill checks. Did they get off the line quicker than the tackle? Did they get full arm extension? Did they get proper leverage? Did the coverage downfield buy them enough time? Parsons, on the other hand, seems to be doing something else out there. When I watch him get into the backfield I am overcome not with the feeling that I am watching someone who possesses more technique or willpower than his opponents, but that I am watching someone who is just better at football than everyone else on the field. If the game can be boiled down to a series of encounters in which one player is physically trying to prevent another player from getting to where he wants to go, then nobody is better than Parsons at winning those encounters at maximum speed and efficiency. He gets past blockers so easily and so often, sometimes without even being touched, that it can look like he's broken a component part of the game. Are he and his opponent playing football, or an extremely lopsided game of tag?
It feels strange to call a guy who has yet to play three seasons in the NFL one of the best players I've ever seen, but football is a sport in which greatness can best be understood through relatively short bursts of genius rather than career-long steadiness. NFL careers are punishingly short, and even the best players' peaks become sharp downslopes much quicker than anyone would like. Hall-of-Fame cases are made over the course of a career, but greatness can be found concentrated in a single season, game, or play. It was there when J.J. Watt racked up 20.5 sacks and 16 deflected passes in one season, when Cam Newton was running over tacklers as effortlessly as he was zipping passes through collapsing windows, and every time Randy Moss caught a touchdown from Tom Brady while three defenders sucked wind in his wake. It was there on Sunday afternoon, when Parsons once again lined up all over the field, pressured the quarterback, defended against the pass, and decided to just rip the ball out of Dalvin Cook's hands:
What's the point of holding back praise in the face of something like that? Micah Parsons is one of the best football players I've ever seen.
Correction: A previous version of this post said that Parsons won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2021. He was the Defensive Rookie of the Year.