“This No. 11, he has that motor,” said Kearse, nicknamed "the Freak" during his 11 NFL seasons. “When I see him pass rush, it’s like he does all the right stuff. When you think he’s going outside, he goes in. When you think he’s using speed, he uses power. ... He has the total package. If he lined up at end every play, he probably would’ve broke [Michael] Strahan’s record."
And if Parsons had broken Strahan’s single-season record of 22.5 sacks, he first would have beaten Kearse’s record for sacks by a rookie (14.5).
Parsons’ chase of Kearse’s record fell short in part because the Cowboys' rookie linebacker spent the final regular-season game on the reserve/COVID-19 list. But his final numbers were as impactful to the Cowboys’ success as Kearse’s were to the Tennessee Titans' success 22 years ago, when the defensive end was named Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Parsons finished with a Cowboys rookie record 13 sacks, along with 84 tackles, 42 quarterback pressures, three forced fumbles and three pass deflections. He had 20 tackles for loss, third-most in the league.
He is the favorite to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award and should be in the mix to be Defensive Player of the Year. The only rookie to win the latter award was linebacker Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants in 1981.
As the Cowboys begin their playoff journey this week against the San Francisco 49ers at AT&T Stadium on Sunday (4:30 p.m. ET, CBS), Parsons, who is expected to come off the reserve/COVID-19 list soon, will try to do something else Kearse did as a rookie -- help lead his team to a Super Bowl.
The Titans lost Super Bowl XXXIV to the St. Louis Rams, but Kearse had three more sacks in the postseason and a tackle for loss.
Tennessee had a mostly veteran defense during Kearse’s rookie year, unlike Dallas, but his impact went beyond statistics.
“It was unique in that he just loved everybody, he loved to practice, loved to compete,” former Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. “He was happy all the time. He never complained about anything. And he was just really, really good. Kind of one of those, ‘Is this too good to be true?’ A lot of that rubbed off on the guys.”
Parsons had a similar impact on and off the field for a Cowboys defense that was atrocious a year ago, allowing a franchise-record 473 points. His arrival (drafted No. 12 overall) coincided with schematic changes and a jolt of energy from new coordinator Dan Quinn that saw the defense allow 358 points, seventh-fewest in the NFL, and record a league-best 34 takeaways.
Unlike Kearse, Parsons lined up everywhere. According to Pro Football Focus, Parsons’ 902 defensive snaps shaped up like this: 498 at linebacker, 374 at defensive line, 29 at cornerback, 1 at safety.
“We’ve been playing here for a long time and we’ve had some excellent edge rushes, so for a guy to have that kind of production when you’re not playing the position full time, I think that speaks to where his future is going from tackles for loss and sacks and impact plays,” Quinn said. “We plan on him being an excellent player here for a long time and I thought just to kick it off in that fashion for him has been a remarkable start to it.
"He’s hungry for it, which is nice because not everybody can handle that kind of versatility and not only at any part of your career, but especially as a rookie. So I definitely tip my hat to him.”
Parsons was about 4 months old when Kearse recorded his first NFL sacks, three against the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 19, 1999. In addition to the 14.5 sacks, Kearse had a league-leading eight forced fumbles, 15 tackles for loss, nine pass deflections, one fumble recovery and a touchdown.
Parsons knew of Kearse and did some Google searches while also talking with his teammate, Jayron.
“His stats was extremely rare for his rookie year,” Parsons said. “I asked JK about him. He said the same thing. Really good player. He was real successful in the league.”
Parsons wonders what his sack total would have been if he was solely a pass-rusher.
“You look at the statistics, guys might have four or three more sacks than me but might have 300 or 400 more pass-rush attempts than me,” Parsons said. “That does speak volumes to the explosiveness I can bring to the game. I can come at any moment. And it speaks volumes to how I’m being used. Never know if I’m a spy, if I’m coming -- but they always got to account [for] me. So it really opens up opportunities for other people.
"Sometimes people always try to look at stats and say if this person’s having a good season. Sometimes it’s really not about stats, it’s about how is this person impacting the game. I believe every game I create an impact.”
Jayron Kearse was 5 years old when his uncle was wrecking games as a rookie, so he does not remember that season other than what people told him. He knows Jevon played free safety in high school and moved to linebacker at Florida before going to defensive end with the Titans. And of course, he remembers the nickname.
“He got a lot of that from his hands,” Jayron said Jevon's hands, which measured 11.63 inches at the combine. “His hands are freakishly large, so he was a specimen.”
Jayron, who led the Cowboys in tackles (101), is in his sixth NFL season and has been surprised by Parsons’ season.
“I’ve never seen a rookie perform how he’s performed -- no way, shape or form been a part of it,” Jayron said. "... Can play off-ball linebacker and can be a top five off-ball linebacker. Can get on the edge and be a top five pass-rusher. I’ve got a lot of respect for a lot of guys in the league that do that well, whether it’s the Bobby Wagners, the T.J. Watts. It’s just crazy that he can get off the ball and play just as good as a Bobby Wagner or he can get on the line and be just as good as a T.J. Watt. You don’t see that from a lot of people, especially being he’s a rookie. He’s only 22 years old. He’s going to continue to get better.”