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Emerging from his shell
Bobby Wagner is easy to spot as he makes his way around Virginia Mason Athletic Center. The Seahawks’ rookie middle linebacker is the one with the Ninja Turtle backpack.
Whether he’s walking from the locker room to the defensive meeting room, or the linebackers’ meeting room to the cafeteria – or even up the stairs leading to the team charter for a flight to an away game – that turtle-shell pack is on his back.
But Wagner also is becoming increasingly easy to spot on the field, too. No. 54 is the one making the most tackles for the Seahawks’ No. 4-ranked defense. Sans his shell.
As the Seahawks have won six of their first 10 games entering their bye week, Wagner has 81 tackles – 17 more than strong safety Kam Chancellor; and 18 more than strongside linebacker K.J. Wright, who was the team’s leading tackler before missing last week’s game and almost all of the game the previous week because of a concussion.
This is what the coaches envisioned when they selected Wagner in the second round of April’s NFL Draft, after deciding against re-signing three-time leading tackler David Hawthorne when he became a free agent. They wanted a younger, more athletic presence in the middle, and they have found it in Wagner.
“I think Bobby Wagner has been really a big plus for us on the positive side,” coach Pete Carroll said. “We didn’t know how we would do as he took over a big role.”
The coaches had expectations, of course, but the quickness with which Wagner has been able to step in as the starter, and then start making the defensive calls in the huddle and the pre-snap checks, and then expanding his role from the base defense to the nickel and other sub packages has exceeded the preconceived time schedule.
“Bobby Wagner, I’m really impressed with,” linebackers coach Ken Norton said.
It’s only a half dozen words, but that is saying something when you consider that Norton was three-time Pro Bowl linebacker and three-time Super Bowl champion during his NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers.
Let’s just say that Norton is not easily impressed. But he likes what he’s seeing from Wagner.
“He’s really athletic. He’s really strong mentally. He’s really smart. He really cares about what he does – his work ethic, about being a really good professional,” Norton said.
But surprised? Norton won’t go there. “Am I surprised?” he said. “No. We drafted him pretty high. When you draft somebody that high – in the second round – we expect him to be an impact player. And he has been that.”
Has he ever, especially in the past five games. That’s when the ever-improving Wagner has produced 53 of his 81 tackles, and all three of his games with double-digit tackles – a career-high 14 in the Week 6 upset of the New England Patriots; 12 against the Detroit Lions two weeks later; and 10 against the Minnesota Vikings the week after that.
But Wagner’s contributions go beyond even his impressive stats – which also include two sacks, and three tackles for losses in the Week 4 game against the Rams in St. Louis.
“Bobby has been running the team, running the defense, making the calls,” Norton said. “He has a nickname – Bobby 100 – because he’s 100 percent on all his calls and all his checks and his gap control. I’m really, really impressed with him.”
But surprised? Not Wagner, and not Robert Turbin, either. Turbin, the Seahawks’ rookie running back and fourth-round pick, was teammates with Wagner at Utah State.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Wagner said. “When I first got drafted, I wanted to earn the starting spot and I wanted to be an impact player – however this team was going to let me do that. It’s worked out that way.
“I knew the expectations were going to be high, but my expectations of myself are even higher than what they expected.”
Turbin is a young man of few words. And he needed ever fewer to make his point when being asked about his former and still teammate.
Is Turbin surprised by how quickly, and well, Wagner has made the transition from college to the NFL? “Not surprised,” he said.
How about his ability to pick up the defense so quickly? “I’m not surprised,” Turbin said.
OK, how about the productivity? “He’s a good player. Not surprised,” Turbin said.
But Wagner also is a player who came late to the sport he now plays for a living.
“When I was little, I didn’t know if I was going to be a professional basketball player or football player,” said Wagner, who grew up in Ontario, Calif. “But I wanted to be a professional athlete of some sort. I always had that dream.”
Football, however, was always his after-thought sport, because he didn’t start playing until his junior year at Colony High School.
“I was more of a basketball player,” he said, then added with a smile, “At least I thought I was.”
When it comes to football, Wagner has experienced what Norton calls “your regular rookie growing pains.” But the rookie compensates, and then some, in other areas.
“There’s such a tremendous upside,” Norton said. “He shows a tremendous ability in shooting gaps, tackling, energy, excitement. He has a special way about him. He can make those special plays that you want impact players to make.
“All the intangibles that you look for in a linebacker, he’s got them.”
Not to mention that Ninja Turtle backpack. A form of rookie hazing?
“No rookie hazing thing. It’s all my choice,” Wagner said. “They actually told me to get rid of the backpack and grow up. But they can’t make me get rid of that backpack.”
Wagner admits to being a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles since he was 2-years old. “And it hasn’t left at 22,” he said, smiling again.
Whatever works. And things obviously are working out well for Wagner.
“It’s great, really,” he said. “Living the life, really. Living the dream. Not a lot of people get an opportunity to do this, and I’m one of the lucky ones. So I just cherish every moment I’ve got.” Read