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Football

An Ode to Micah Parsons, Who Cares a Whole Lot About His Stats (And Should, Too)

The Cowboys' superstar defensive lineman refuses to pretend he's anything other than awesome, and he has the data to back it up. That matters a whole lot in the sport he plays.
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Micah Parsons is big on flexing, both literally and figuratively. Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports. Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Among the many, many ways I am ill-equipped to be a professional football player—mediocre cardiovascular conditioning, suboptimal hand-eye coordination, minimal pain tolerance, a serious aversion to strenuous diets—concerns the matter of individual accolades. Namely, I think they’re good, and that everyone should know their worth in a world where too many employers grind up their workforce and spit out the bones should they threaten to impede profit growth.  

The NFL disagrees. To know our nation’s most popular sports league is to understand it as a combat sport wrapped in the veneer of drabby office culture: you are encouraged to inflict maximum violence upon the player opposite you, and you are expected to do so while calling minimal attention to yourself outside the group environment. Lines must be straddled. Dak Prescott, in the midst of a career season and quite possibly the best of any quarterback this year, deflects MVP talk with bromides about brotherhood and team success. CeeDee Lamb, the league’s premier wide receiver this season, parries attempts to place himself in the conversation for Offensive Player of the Year by insisting that award should go to San Francisco’s Christian McCaffrey—but “if you want to throw my name in there, that’s cool, too.” Fines for innocuous touchdown celebrations are rampant. Same goes even more innocuous uniform violations.

The league has made it uncouth to care too loudly about the individual—even though the average NFL player only lasts 3.3 years, even though he is disproportionately likely to walk away with a traumatic brain injury (to say nothing of neurodegenerative disease), and even though this is the only major professional sports league that does not furnish guaranteed contracts. (Except for the one Cleveland dished out to someone accused of sexual misconduct by more than two dozen women, which in turn may or may not have prompted leaguewide collusion against the next player who desired such a deal.)

It is against this backdrop that Micah Parsons wants to tell you just how big a badass he is. I know that because I follow him on Twitter—we’re still calling it Twitter—where a significant amount of his recent posts concern what level of elite his play checks in at. Sometimes, it’s amplifying something anecdotal, like a post showing him triple-teamed by Washington during the Cowboys’ regular-season finale—”Only 3  pash rushers in the league get this treatment consistently ! That’s why I don’t look at stats!” he wrote as part of the caption.

Except Parsons does look at stats—extremely granular ones at that, and he’s not bashful about making sure the view public knows that the likes of ESPN and Pro Football Focus (especially Pro Football Focus, judging by the post volume) confirm him to be one the game’s very best. Two days ago, he shared some weapons-grade analytical nerdery via a chart made by former Sports Illustrated editor Tyler Jaggi, in which Parsons was graded relative to fellow Defensive Player of the Year candidates Joey Bosa, Myles Garrett, and T.J. Watt in 44 different categories. The TL;DR is Parsons showed up quite favorably among the quartet—and that it wasn’t the first time he’s shared a version of that chart, either. “Tired of the disrespect man!” he wrote in the caption.

This, it should be noted, is not typical NFL athlete behavior. It is definitely an outlier among his peer group: Bosa hasn’t tweeted in more than a year, Garrett’s self-praise mostly deals in retweeting NBA stars who think he’s awesome (like you wouldn’t), and the only number Watt posted about in relation to his own game was captioned, naturally, with “Not possible without my teammates and coaches!!!” If they are as concerned about their standing as he is—or share Parsons’ frustration about the vagaries of the Pro Bowl voting process—they are not remotely as interested in broadcasting that publicly.

It’s possible that all of this loops back somewhere bigger than him. “The confusion on who’s a dominant player and good player is wild!” he wrote two days ago, and the uncomfortable truth is he’s right. Even the most advanced publicly available data is dwarfed by the proprietary data most franchises keep in-house, and that’s before considering how no one outside of the players and coaches on the field knows for certain what a player’s assignment is. And the bulk of mainstream analysis—which is consumed by the greatest number of fans, which in turn shapes the broadest swath of opinions and conversation—deals in context way less sophisticated than that. (Related: the number of times Parsons’ bookend on the defensive line, DeMarcus Lawrence, has been downplayed due to his sack totals.)

An elite NFL player taking time out of his day to fire off takes—something Parsons is adept at in multiple mediums—and marry some of them to hard numbers would be a very good way to close the information gap between the public and the athletes they watch. To that end, it’s worth pointing out that Parsons is almost as vigorous about caping for his teammates as he is himself; you won’t have to scroll far to find him throwing out numbers that highlight Lamb and Prescott’s award cases, too.

Then again, there’s also a pretty good chance most of this boils down to someone extraordinarily good at his job wanting every little thing commensurate to that status, which is great in its own way. Why shouldn’t Parsons care about his life’s work being recognized and remembered at the correct level? Football’s unofficial corporate handbook declares that winning games, and Super Bowl rings, are the best way to do that—Parsons posts about those, too—which conveniently ignores that no one player determines very much across a full postseason or that Dan Marino’s records, Pro Bowls, and Hall of Fame jacket will make his name live on far longer Trent Dilfer, Nick Foles, and Joe Flacco’s championship rings will for them.

Then there is the subject of wealth. Production prompts paydays, but so does pressure. The more people aware of precisely how special Parsons is, the larger his status, and the louder the accompanying fuss to make sure Jerry Jones and Co. deliver every cent owed to him on or before the 24-year-old’s rookie contract expires in 2026. That matters for someone who was born into poverty severe enough to make his mother consider whether she could afford to keep her pregnancy.  

This strategy only goes as far as Parsons’ performance takes it, but three years into his pro career, he’s doing things only the greatest pass rusher in NFL history can match. I knew that before he told me on social media. But in spite of what professional football wants its stars to believe, it didn’t hurt that one of them reminded me of it, either.

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Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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