FRISCO, Texas — Dan Quinn was like a lot of New Jersey kids in the 1980s.
“L.T. was my favorite player, there’s no doubt about it. I had the poster on the wall, the whole thing,” said the Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator, who grew up in Morris Township, New Jersey. “Yeah, he was the one that if you were a young kid coming up, their defense was pretty rugged. And I certainly admired [New York Giants coach] Bill Parcells and that style and attitude that the guys played with.”
L.T. is Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who played 13 seasons for the Giants after being drafted No. 2 overall in 1981. Forty years later, Quinn’s star student, Micah Parsons, is trying to become the first rookie to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award since Taylor did it.
“Boy, that’s a good question. I don’t know. I guess we have four more weeks to figure it out,” Quinn said when asked whether Parsons could win DPOY as Taylor did. “But anytime you talk about a guy who changed the game so much it’s a cool thing. For Micah, we just want him to be the best version of himself.”
Parsons’ trek to potentially matching Taylor continues Sunday against Taylor’s former team, the Giants, at MetLife Stadium (1 p.m. ET, Fox). In the first meeting at AT&T Stadium this season against the Giants, Parsons was credited with nine tackles and three quarterback pressures.
In the eight games since that meeting in Week 5, Parsons has 9.5 sacks, which matched what Taylor had in 1981 when sacks weren’t an official NFL stat.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was the Giants linebackers coach during Taylor’s rookie year. What does he remember about it?
“His dominance,” Belichick said. “The greatness of Lawrence Taylor. He’s bigger, stronger, faster, more explosive. Even though he didn’t really know what he was doing, instinctively as a football player, he’s at the very top of the list.”
Belichick remembers Taylor’s first practice. He was used in all four phases of the kicking game and could not be stopped. He even worked as the gunner on the punt coverage team. He was on the kickoff return team. He said Taylor’s play on the punt team was a huge reason why the Giants beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the playoffs that year.
Taylor’s career was transcendent.
“There’s nobody that really I could put in his category that I’ve coached,” Belichick said. “There may be others that I haven’t coached, but I mean, he’s head and shoulders above whoever the next player is. And I’ve been fortunate to coach a lot of great, great defensive players, but when you talk about Lawrence Taylor, now that’s a whole different conversation. I mean, honestly, he could have played any position on defense except corner. He probably could have played corner too, but safety, linebacker, inside, outside, defensive end, defensive tackle. He played noseguard at North Carolina, so put him wherever you want.”
Parsons has shown versatility, too, playing linebacker and on the defensive line. His snaps between rushing the passer and playing in pass coverage have been fairly evenly divided. When Parsons is part of the pass rush, the Dallas defense allows a QBR of 18 and gets pressure on over 40% of dropbacks. That’s equivalent to the best defense in the league in both departments. It’s also better than the Browns’ defense with Myles Garrett, Steelers with T.J. Watt and Rams with Aaron Donald.
Comparisons to Taylor are inevitable, but even Parsons doesn’t want to hear it.
“It’s really too early. I could see the similarities, but L.T. was completely different,” Parsons said. “It’s an honor that people are doing that. But to be compared to a Hall of Famer so early on, I mean it’s not ready to be a conversation yet. I still have a long way to go. He had a 142 [sacks] so I got 130 more sacks to go before we start saying that was L.T. So let’s just chill. Keep on enjoying the work I got to keep putting in to get there.”
The question isn’t whether Parsons will be the next Taylor but if his rookie season is on pace to be among the best for a defender.
Linebackers Derrick Thomas, Mike Croel, Brian Urlacher, Kendrell Bell, Terrell Suggs, Shawne Merriman, Patrick Willis and Von Miller have won Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Parsons has more sacks than everyone but Suggs, who had 12 in 2003, and Parsons has four games remaining. At his current rate, only Willis will have more tackles (136) than Parsons.
Parsons’ 12 sacks are a Cowboys’ rookie record. He has had at least one sack in six straight games, trailing only the eight straight games Jevon Kearse had sacks in 1999, his rookie season with the Tennessee Titans when he set the rookie record with 14.5 sacks.
Only Julius Peppers (13), Reggie White (13) and Leslie O’Neal (12.5) had more sacks in their first 13 games.
Beyond sacks, Parsons has more impressive numbers.
He has 75 tackles and 17 tackles for loss, which is tied for the league lead.
According to Pro Football Focus, Parsons has pressured the quarterback 55 times on 255 pass rushes (21.6%). Only Bucs linebacker Devin White has a higher percentage (26.95%).
Parsons also has 10.8% run-stop percentage, according to PFF, which is third-best in the league.
The last player with at least 12 sacks and 75 tackles through the first 13 games of a season was Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison (15 sacks, 80 tackles) in 2008 when he was named Defensive Player of the Year, beating out DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys’ all-time leader in sacks.
“My motto is always, ‘Dominate or be dominated,’” Parsons said. “I have been saying that since high school. You either going to line up across from somebody and they are going to whup you for 60 minutes or you are going to whup them. There is no in between.”
The Cowboys were not even home for 24 hours after last week’s 27-20 win against the Washington Football Team in which Parsons had two sacks, including one that forced a fumble that led to defensive end Dorance Armstrong’s return for a touchdown, when Quinn heard from the rookie.
“Here’s what I love about him, I got a text this morning: ‘What do we got this week?’ And so that tells me that he’s down for a challenge and what we got to get done,’” Quinn said. “I said, ‘Hey man, I’m still grading this game, so I’ll get back to you. Give me a minute.’ It’s 9:30 in the morning. ‘I’ll get back to you.’ But I think that kind of attitude shows that he’s willing to go.”
Parsons has seen Taylor’s highlights. He said he is arguably the best defensive player to play, although Belichick would tell him to take “arguably” out of the description.
Parsons has not met or spoken to Taylor, but he would like to if possible. He wants to know what his mindset was, how he thought.
They might have a lot in common.
“I feel like you either got it or you don’t,” Parsons said. “It comes from inside of me. That drive I have inside of me, wanting to be great, wanting to do more, wanting more on my plate just comes with wanting to do this. I always talk about my destiny. I feel like I am destined to do this. And that is why I put so much time into it. I just want to be a winner. I want to be something. I don’t think nobody can like become something by sitting back and [watching] and waiting for something to happen. I am trying to initiate it to happen.”
ESPN NFL Nation Patriots reporter Mike Reiss contributed to this report.