Bobby Wagner walked to his locker and noticed there was perhaps a bit too much noise and laughter less than 24 hours after a loss. Wagner did not raise his voice. He respectfully said a few words and the noise immediately died down.
“His voice is bigger than ever and he’s taken to it,” Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “He’s embellished the role to become — he’s really the voice of our guys. He’s done a great job with handling that.”
If possible, Wagner may be having the best season of his career heading into Monday night’s key NFC game against the Minnesota Vikings. It is not the numbers that stand out about Wagner’s season — although they are pretty impressive — but the context.
Yes, the seventh-year standout from Utah State is one of the best middle linebackers in football. But he is doing it for an almost entirely rebuilt defense without a number of the stars who helped make Seattle such a defensive powerhouse. Wagner is one of only a few holdovers, yet Seattle is on the cusp of a playoff berth with its middle linebacker leading the way.
“I really think it’s extraordinary when guys continue to be really good,” Carroll said of Wagner.
“It’s not that it has to be better than or have some other things happen that have never happened before — although it did. It’s just that they continue to be great. That’s really the mark of a great competitor and a great player and performer and all that, not just show once in a while that they can.”
A victory by Seattle (7-5) would not lock up a postseason spot, but it would put the Seahawks in solid position entering the final three weeks with games remaining against lowly San Francisco and Arizona. A win by the Vikings (6-5-1) might be their only way of staying in the NFC North race.
Last week against San Francisco, Wagner managed to fill every column on the NFL’s official defensive stat sheet: Tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, quarterback hits, forced fumbles, fumble recovery and an interception — the first pick-six of his career on a 98-yard touchdown return.
“Statswise, I had everything that you could have, so I think that’s dope. But I think there’s — I don’t know how to say what game is what,” Wagner said. “It kind of just depends on the game and how important of a game it was or the magnitude of the game, so it’s kind of hard to compare games.”
It was no surprise that he was the NFC defensive player of the week for his performance against the 49ers, but it also drew attention to his season as a whole. He is likely to be an All-Pro again, and if not for the seasons being had by the likes of the Rams’ Aaron Donald and the Texans’ J.J. Watt, Wagner would possibly be in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year conversation.
“It’s a combination of a lot of things,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “He has great speed. I think he sees things really well. He is very instinctual. You know, with that position and their defense, it gives them a lot of flexibility to run and get to the football.”
It was not a case of Wagner being overlooked or undervalued in the past. Some of his biggest supporters were the loudest of teammates whose voices regularly grabbed the attention.
But with the likes of Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Kam Chancellor no longer around for a variety of reasons, there seems to be a new appreciation for what Wagner is doing in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season for the Seahawks.
Add in that the other two holdovers from Seattle’s years as the best defense in the NFL — K.J. Wright and Earl Thomas — have missed large portions of the season due to injuries, and Wagner’s performance becomes even more notable.
Seattle’s defense might not be up to the standard of those Super Bowl seasons. But with Wagner leading the way, they still might be good enough to find their way into the postseason.
“I think he’s the total package when you talk about being a smart player, being instinctual, athletic, playing fast, doing a good job recognizing plays, recognizing what the offense is trying to do,” Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “He’s good against the run, good against the pass, a good blitzer. He’s probably — I think I told him this after the preseason game — one of the best, if not the best linebackers in the NFL.”