FRISCO, Texas — When the producers of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” called DeMarcus Ware with the idea of him getting together with linebacker/defensive end Micah Parsons for one of the episodes, the all-time leader in sacks for the Dallas Cowboys had one condition.
“I don’t want it to be staged,” Ware told them. “I don’t want him to be clammed up like he can’t say this or that. Whatever’s not going to be the best for TV, don’t show that, but you will get the best part of who he is if you let him be himself.”
For about 45 minutes last month, Parsons went to Ware’s gym, 3 Volt, in Trophy Club, Texas, and they dove into the finer points of pass rushing. It went so well that they exchanged phone numbers and now talk or text weekly.
“That’s my guy,” Parsons said of Ware.
Parsons, the No. 12 overall pick in the 2020 draft, is turning into the guy for the Cowboys’ defense in some of the same ways Ware was the guy for the Cowboys from 2005-13 when he racked up 117 of his 138.5 career sacks and seven of his nine Pro Bowl appearances. Last week, Ware was nominated to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Through three games, Parsons has been credited with 11 tackles, 1.5 sacks, six quarterback pressures, two pass deflections and a tackle for loss, but he seems to have more impact than the numbers indicate.
The past two games he has played predominantly as a pass-rusher, like Ware, because of injuries to DeMarcus Lawrence (foot), Dorance Armstrong (ankle) and a one-game absence due to COVID-19 for Randy Gregory.
They are the first two games Parsons has played as a pass-rusher since high school.
Had Sunday’s opponent, the Carolina Panthers (1 p.m. ET, Fox), not selected cornerback Jaycee Horn at No. 8 overall, then there was a good chance Parsons would not have been a Cowboy. The major defensive need entering the draft was cornerback and the Cowboys liked Horn and Alabama’s Pat Surtain II.
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The Panthers took Horn, who is out with broken bones in his foot, and the Denver Broncos took Surtain at No. 9. The Cowboys traded back from No. 10 to No. 12 in the first round with the Philadelphia Eagles and got Parsons, whom Jerry Jones said was their highest-ranked defensive player.
“There was a little of an, ‘Ah, s—,’ because you wanted to add a corner and we thought we’d be in line to get one of those guys and they could add something to us very quickly,” vice president of player personnel Will McClay said. “But then you talk about helping the defense and you’re looking for the best player. There were a number of ways we could’ve gone, but we had him as a highly graded defensive player.”
And so put in motion the potential partnership of Parsons and Ware.
“There are some elements of [Parsons’] game that compare to DeMarcus’ game with his suddenness,” McClay said. “And then DeMarcus developed into such a technician with his pass rush. Initially he was going off his God-given talent, but there are some comparisons there. But Micah is kind of an enigma. He can do so many different things.”
It didn’t take long for Ware to realize that, even as he and Parsons went through pass-rush moves and hand-fighting drills at less-than-full speed.
“The guy has that little twitch that all pass-rushers know,” Ware said. “You can’t teach it. It’s just a way with great pass-rushers and having a knack for the football. Like no matter what they have that pop.”
Ware had that and developed into a savvy pass-rusher. He found out Parsons was a quick learner, too. In his first start as a pass-rusher, he overpowered Chargers right tackle Storm Norton to pressure Justin Herbert before claiming the first sack in the fourth quarter.
“It was sudden, but [Norton’s] foot, once I saw his outside foot cross my foot where I’m going, it was easy to take the inside move,” Parsons said. “That’s why I was quick to go side swipe and rip underneath it to get to the quarterback fast.”
Ware was watching the game live when he saw Parsons take advantage of Norton’s over-set to the outside and sent him a text message immediately.
“I knew how athletic he was, but I didn’t know how technical he can be,” Ware said. “I started teaching him some of the techniques and nuances of reading offenses, reading offensive tackles, how to get off the ball, get a jump ball. All the small things, and he knew that. As I went through the progressions, he picked that up really fast.”
Parsons’ teammates have been equally impressed, especially since he has learned multiple positions. Parsons leads all rookies with a 30% pass rush win rate, an ESPN stat powered by NFL Next Gen Stats.
“He’s a freakin’ baller,” said linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who had a breakout rookie season in 2018 and was named to the Pro Bowl. “The kid can do his thing and you’re not going to stop him.”
Said defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, “He can run and hit like you know what. That’s his super power.”
Parsons’ super power comes from a hill not far from the practice field at Central Dauphin High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He used to get in trouble with his coaches because his mind would drift.
“So growing up I used to run a ton of hills. They used to call it ‘Parsons Hill,’” Parsons said. “They’re like, ‘Just go to the hill.’ And I used to run hills all the time and eventually I just noticed I kept getting faster and faster and faster. So eventually I was like I’m unstoppable on this hill. I just got faster and faster from it. So I think that’s where I get my closing speed.”
Ware, who also had closing speed, said: “He can close on a tackle in a way where it’s not like a normal person. He’s got that different athleticism that he can use to really benefit the team. Some rushers can’t bend their body like that, but when you find a guy that can then it’s like, ‘Whoa, we got something special.’ I know I see something special in Micah.”