Soft-spoken and always smiling, Bobby Wagner seems like a bona fide NFL star who still remembers how fortunate he is to be paid good money to play a game.
I doubt there are many pro athletes more genuinely humble than Wagner. And few who seem more gentle-spirited as they go about their job of delivering dread and discomfort.
It was interesting, then, a couple years ago when the Seahawks’ defense had emerged as big news in the NFL, that the middle linebacker stressed a point about professional recognition at the start of a training camp.
Yes, the Legion of Boom secondary deserved every bit of attention it received. And, yes, the defensive line was getting the necessary love for sacking quarterbacks.
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But, Wagner offered, it was time for the linebackers to start making a name for themselves. He’d heard that some had taken to calling the linebackers The Forgotten Ones.
He didn’t like the sound of that.
He was right; they deserved better. And Wagner went about changing things.
Wagner recently was named to his second All-Pro first team, getting 48 of 50 available votes — the highest percentage of any offensive or defensive player.
It should be an easy extrapolation, then, to offer the opinion that Wagner deserves to be voted the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, an award that will be presented Super Bowl weekend.
Houston’s J.J. Watt has won it three of the past four seasons, but he’s missed most of this season with injuries.
Some other top candidates come with caveats. Von Miller’s Broncos didn’t make the playoffs. Khalil Mack’s Raiders were a quick out and weren’t great as a unit. Aaron Donald was on a bad Rams team. Landon Collins rose to the top as a safety for the Giants, but is only in his second year. The Falcons’ Vic Beasley led the league with 15.5 sacks, but that’s pretty much what he does.
But nobody does as much as Wagner, not on a very highly ranked defense, and not with such consistency.
“Nobody has played better football anywhere that I have seen in this league,” coach Pete Carroll said after a typical Wagner performance in Saturday’s wild card round win over Detroit. “He has just been such a stellar part of what we’re doing, and he put the numbers up week in and week out.”
Yes, he has, and awards tend to be based in raw statistics.
Wagner led the NFL in tackles this season (a franchise-record 167), his fifth consecutive season with more than 100 tackles.
But there’s more to Wagner’s value. He has the speed to range sideline-to-sideline after ballcarriers, but also to drop and cover on passing downs. That 4.4 speed allows him to stay on the field regardless the down-distance situation.
“It’s rare in this league to see a linebacker who plays off blocks as well as he does, who tackles as well as he does, and defends the pass as well as he does — he’s the best all-around linebacker I’ve ever seen,” said Brock Coyle, Wagner’s backup.
Week after week, Wagner plays as if obsessed with making the tackle on every play. He had 16 against Buffalo, 15 at New Orleans, 15 against the Eagles, 14 against Atlanta.
In the final regular-season game at San Francisco, he had 12 tackles, two sacks, a pass breakup and a fumble recovery. Against Detroit, the Lions ran 47 snaps, and Wagner had 10 stops.
“It’s consistent domination,” linebacker K.J. Wright said of Wagner’s season. “He just keeps it up, every game. No other guy in the NFL is doing that. He senses what’s coming; that’s a part of his game where he’s really improved.”
Wagner not only calls the signals, he directs the traffic as well.
“He tells us where to go; he’s a leader for a reason,” cornerback DeShawn Shead said. “With his film study and preparation, he knows what’s coming. That’s how he can play so fast. Sometimes he hits the hole before the running back can get there.”
The accolades have not affected Wagner at all, Coyle said, only made his humility all the more impressive.
“To see the way he is in the locker room with teammates and then off the field with the fans is one thing,” Coyle said. “But then he steps onto that field, and he really switches it on. You can see his intensity, his focus, his competitiveness. It brings out the best in all of us.”
A Player of the Year award would put Wagner in a small Seahawks fraternity. Kenny Easley (’84) and Cortez Kennedy (’92) have won it on defense, and Shaun Alexander (’05) earned it on offense.
Of the honors, Wagner stressed how grateful and appreciative he is.
“But I still feel like there’s more out there,” he said.
As it is, he’ll never have to worry about being one of the forgotten ones.