When Bobby Wagner recorded 18 tackles and a tackle for loss in the season opener, that performance was somewhat overshadowed both by the fact that it was his first game back with the Seahawks after spending one year with the Rams, and because, thanks to a second half the Seahawks would rather forget, they lost the game by a double-digit margin.
And when Wagner added 10 more tackles in a Week 2 win, his leadership was a topic of conversation more than his play, and for good reason. His impassioned speech earlier in the week prior to practice was cited by Pete Carroll and several players as a big reason why the Seahawks were able to put a Week 1 loss behind them and earn an overtime win in Detroit.
Then in Week 4, Wagner turned in an outstanding performance in a Monday night win over the Giants, piling up 17 tackles as well as two sacks, but once again, his play wasn't the story coming out of the game because a lot of the attention was, fairly, on rookie cornerback Devon Witherspoon, who earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for a performance that included two sacks and a 97-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Wagner's return to Seattle was a massive story, and his leadership has rightly been lauded, yet in a way his actual on-field play has been somewhat overlooked four games into the season. At 33 years old and in his 12th season, Wagner, a near lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is still playing at an All-Pro level despite the fact that two teams, the Seahawks and the Rams, have released him in the last two years in salary cap-related moves.
"Seventeen tackles again this past week, he has been terrific," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's doing everything that he's always been able to do, and he looks great doing it. We're really fired up for him. He fits so well in the scheme and control and everything too. It has just worked out great."
Through four games, Wagner is averaging 12.5 tackles per game, a number that ranks second in the NFL behind Indianapolis' Zaire Franklin (13.8). Pro Football Focus ranks Wagner as the third best linebacker in the league (minimum 150 snaps), and has him as the No. 1 run defender in the entire NFL.
"He's the same old Bobby," said fellow inside linebacker Jordyn Brooks. "Making plays in the backfield, killing the run game, playing well in coverage. I think last week was probably one of the better games I've seen him play. It just shows his greatness how long he can keep doing this."
One reason Wagner is still playing at such a high level when most players his age are now former players is that the game has slowed down for him over the years. That's not to say Wagner has lost a step—are you going to tell Bobby Wagner he's lost a step?—but even if he had, his 11-plus years of experience is more than enough to compensate.
"I think the games a lot slower, I think that's what it is, you kind of know what's coming," he said. "I think when I was a rookie there were a lot of wasted steps. You want to be so fast, you want to get to everything so quick that you just waste movement, waste steps. A lot of times people say you're out there just running like a chicken with its head cut off. As you become more comfortable you understand that you don't have to move as fast when you know where the ball is going or sometimes, you'll step this way when the ball's going that way and it's no reason to do that. So, you might just even sit there and just not move. There have been a couple times where I don't even move because I know where the ball is going. That's just trusting what I see, trusting what I've seen over my career and just making a play when I need too."
To Brooks, what makes Wagner's greatness all the more impressive is the fact that he is doing it having already put together a Hall of Fame career that has seen him become one of the best and most beloved players in franchise history.
"It just shows his work ethic, his drive to be great," Brooks said. "Dude has accomplished everything there is to accomplish. He could have stopped playing three years ago and made it to the Hall of Fame, but he has that drive to want to be greatest."
If there's one number that best illustrates what Wagner has meant to the Seahawks this season, aside from the team's 3-1 record, it's the 3.2-yards-per-carry rushing average for Seattle's opponents this season, a number that ranks first in the NFL. Last season, that number was 4.9 yards per carry, which ranked 26th. A lot has gone into Seattle's improvements on run defense, from personnel changes up front to tweaks to the defensive scheme, but Wagner's return has also been a big factor.
"It's a factor," Carroll said. "Like (Jarran) Reed, seeing things and analyzing things and making the proper call, the adjustment maybe, or just the awareness or just to tap on a guy's butt just to tell them what's coming or whatever; all of those little subtleties just make you a little bit better and little bit more apt to make the play that's coming at you. There's a lot of subtlety to that too, just like it is with J-Reed in sensing when to and how to take advantage of the opportunities. Bobby Wagner has done that, but I know he's helping guys around. You can't have more experience than he has, and he is a good communicator, and he does have the awareness to go ahead and share it with the guys."
Wagner, much like the entire team after a 3-1 start, feels pretty good about how the first quarter of the season went, yet even 12 years into a career that includes six first-team All-Pro selections and eight Pro-Bowl nods, still sees room for grown in his game.
"I feel pretty good," he said. "I feel like I'm making plays. I still feel like there's things that I can do to improve my game, which is something that I always pride myself on, is trying to improve and get better. I think it's hard to say whether or not someone's doing good, there's so much more season left. It's off to a good start and there's a lot more stuff to do."
Check out some of the best photos taken of Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner from the 2023 season.