OXNARD, Calif. — First Dan Quinn spotted the quickness.
The Cowboys defensive coordinator had known rookie Micah Parsons brought coverage and blitz abilities to Dallas, Parsons’ college tape demonstrating how he could leverage size and speed effectively across downs.
But pass-rushing? Parsons’ COVID-shortened college career didn’t scream edge talent. So Quinn experienced.
“That started, I’d say, in minicamp,” Quinn told USA TODAY Sports. “’OK, I’m going to add more, add more, add more.’
“It was really during training camp (last year) that I figured we had something as a pass rusher. … I wasn’t planning to go into the season using him as a defensive end.”
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But then the Cowboys lost defensive end Randy Gregory to a COVID-19 bout, and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence was sidelined 10 weeks with a fractured foot. Suddenly, Dallas was preparing for a 2021 Week 2 visit to the Los Angeles Chargers without either starting edge.
So Parsons stepped in.
I have thrived.
This year, expect him to pass rush again.
“It was after that practice (before Week 2) that I said, ‘Hey come up and see me: I think I’m going to do this for the whole game,’” Quinn said. “So that’s how it started. And I’ll do that again some this year, where he’d be a D-end for the game.
“When I feel like I need that, I’ll do it.”
‘That is his super power’
Parsons isn’t the first player for whom Quinn has devised a versatile role. But he is the first player Quinn overtly directs to split time between two position groups’ meetings. Parsons even adheres to a daily practice plan in which he joins defensive linemen for two-minute work before cycling through individual drills with the linebacking corps.
“Every day, trying to make sure I’m not losing anything in either,” Parsons said. “I’m just enhancing my knowledge of the game.”
The initial ask was tall for a 22-year-old rookie linebacker 18 months removed from competitive football (Parsons opted out of the 2020 COVID-19-skewed season). But Quinn found reason to trust.
“He is a rare competitor — that is his superpower,” Quinn said. “If he doesn’t have something quite down, he is going to get it down. And he’ll work hard to get it right because he does not like to not be able to do something.
“So if you ever want to get him, that’s the thing: Anything with a competition is his wheelhouse.”
Quinn valued how Parsons kept the chess piece offensive coordinators guessing last year, and the Cowboys organization still declines to absolve him completely of coverage and run-stopping abilities.
But as Quinn aspires for his defense to force more fumbles — 26 of Dallas’ league-leading takeaways came from interceptions last season, while Dallas recovered eight fumbles — pressure on the quarterback must heighten.
“If it only comes from interceptions, our chance of leading the league in takeaways is much lower,” Quinn said. “If we had five less interceptions, but 10 more recovered fumbles, then you make it up that way. More hits on the quarterback, more sacks.
“Because we didn’t force a lot of fumbles, to be honest with you.”
‘I was… sometimes guessing’
The Cowboys lost Gregory in free agency to the Denver Broncos. They signed veteran pass rusher Dante Fowler, re-signed Dorance Armstrong, and drafted Sam Williams in the second round of the 2022 draft for the expected right-end rotation. On the left side, Lawrence hopes the burst he once showed in a two-year, 25-sack stretch will return now that he finally completed a healthy offseason.
At any point, Parsons could kick out as well.
Parsons believes he’ll be more effective as a pass-rusher now that he’s more thoroughly understanding edge responsibilities, last year’s 13 sacks coming despite him “not understanding the full concepts” of the defense.
“I was going through growing pains throughout the year, sometimes guessing,” Parsons said. “Now that I kind of know and figured it out, I just feel way more relaxed.”
That relaxation will not spill over into what Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy hopes are defenders’ violent hands at the attack, Parsons eager to ensure his hands are on the ball and in coverage. His footwork from him, too, sharpens as his scheme grasp tightens.
“I’d say I could eliminate a few extra steps I ain’t have to take,” Parsons said. “And those could be TFLs (tackles for loss), sacks, however you may look at it.”
Quinn knows Parsons will welcome whatever challenge or competition his coordinator throws at him.
“I don’t believe in pressure; pressure is nonexistent,” said Parsons. “You kind of have expectations for yourself and what you want to achieve, and that’s personal. But I think pressure’s the other aspects of how people view you.
“Last year, I was trying to earn the respect of my fellow teammates and players across the league. This year, I want to go out and dominate.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @joriepstein