For a decade in Seattle, Bobby Wagner established himself as one of the best middle linebackers to ever play the game, and he also became an unquestioned leader in the Seahawks locker room.
After one season away, Wagner returned to Seattle as a free agent in March, and upon his return, the future Hall of Famer made a conscious effort to defer to the players who emerged as leaders last season, including Quandre Diggs, who was a co-captain last season along with Al Woods.
"He told me, 'I don't want to come back and just take over and do that,'" Diggs said of being a team captain.
Diggs, however, wasn't hearing it, telling Wagner, "I want them to vote you captain, that's you. I want you to have that.' He's Bobby, he created this culture."
Wagner later explained that, for years the captain roles and the bulk of the player-led leadership always came from him and from Russell Wilson—and that worked great for the team for a long time—but with the team moving on from both of those players last season, that dynamic shifted. Instead of two dominant leaders, the team saw numerous players take on those duties, from Diggs, Woods, Jordyn Brooks and others on defense, to Tyler Lockett, Will Dissly, DK Metcalf and others on offense. Wagner didn't want to just assume it was his right to come back in and take things back to the way they were after all of those players had a big part in the team's success a year ago. He recognized that those players were building something different, and he wanted to be a part of it, not take it over.
In the end, as Seahawks coach Pete Carroll put it this week, players "know who the man is. It's pretty obvious." So despite his attempts to defer leadership, Wagner was voted one of the team's two defensive captains along with Diggs. But the fact that Wagner, who without a doubt will go down as one of the greatest players in franchise history, came back to the team trying to respect the leadership roles established by others helps illustrate just how smoothly his return to the Seahawks has gone.
While Wagner and the Seahawks have yet to play a game this season, every part of the reunion leading up to Sunday's opener against the Rams has, if anything, exceeded expectations.
"It's been pretty much perfect," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "When I talked to Bobby and got a feel for what he was thinking, and trying to convey what we were thinking, there was a real, obvious, natural connection. It's just exactly the right place for him to be right now. It's exactly right for me to be coaching him, for him to be playing for us, and for him to be back here. He's to be much celebrated about his willingness to come back and share in this opportunity again, and revisit all of the fans, and touch base on where home is for him. It's been great."
"I thought it was a chapter that closed."
The 2022 offseason brought significant change for the Seahawks, including the decisions to part ways with two of the best players in franchise history, with Wilson being traded to Denver and Wagner being released for salary cap reasons. Wagner, who serves as his own agent, handled the departure as professionally as anyone could, even quietly walking around the third floor of the Virginia Mason Athletic Center to write "Thank you for everything, BWagz" on white boards around the building, messages that remain up to this day. But even though Wagner knew he would have suitors and knew he could still play at a high level, there are emotions involved, and it hurt being let go by the team that drafted him 10 years earlier.
Wagner, who showed the Rams last season that he can still play at an elite level, had plenty of options in free agency, and chose to play for his hometown team, putting together another impressive season that earned him second-team All-Pro honors. And as that season was unfolding for one of Seattle's NFC West rivals, it never crossed Wagner's mind that he may end up back in Seattle as a player.
"At this moment last year, no I didn't think so at all," he said. "I wasn't even set on it. I thought it was a chapter that closed. I'm watching guys like (Richard) Sherm, K.J. (Wright), Kam (Chancellor), Cliff (Avril). I think the only person that really got a chance to come back was Bruce (Irvin). So I didn't feel like it was a possibility, but God works in mysterious ways."
But things changed for Wagner when the Rams, who went 5-12 last season, setting off a significant overhaul of their roster. Wagner, for the second year in a row, found himself released not because of his performance, but because of the salary cap.
For both sides, a return made a lot of sense. The Seahawks had a need at inside linebacker, and Wagner, having had a chance to play in his original hometown, recognized there wasn't a better fit for him than the place that became his second home over the course of a decade.
"He's definitely changed a little bit, you can tell," Diggs said. "He saw that every place isn't like this place. Every place has its pros and cons, but this place has more pros than it has cons. It wasn't his fault he had to leave, but going through that experience, that changes your mentality, you appreciate things at a greater level."
And if there were any lingering feelings over being released by the Seahawks, they didn't last long. Wagner and Carroll shared a long moment together in the visitor's locker room after last season's win in Los Angeles, and Carroll had nothing but good things to say about Wagner last season, while Wagner spoke highly of his time in Seattle while with the Rams. And this week, the two shared a nice moment in Carroll's office, appreciating how things have come full circle.
"We kind of just had a moment, all of the stuff that we've been through, the good, the bad, the ugly, to be in this position, to be together, starting another season, trying to win a championship, is something that, we had a moment of appreciation," Wagner said.
"I'm one of those guys who wants to prove that he's still got it."
As much as Wagner's return to Seattle is a great story on a human-interest level, it's still a football story first and foremost. The Seahawks didn't bring Wagner back to appease fans (or Diggs, who was constantly in Carroll's ear about it until the deal got done); they signed him because they needed to improve at linebacker, and Wagner is still one of the best in the business, even as he gets ready to kick off his 12th season in the NFL playing one of the sport's most physically demanding positions.
And from a football standpoint, Wagner has been everything the Seahawks were hoping to get and more.
"He looks really good," Carroll said. "We've done a nice job of working him into it. I like the conditioning that he's at right now. He's always been a hard worker, but I think he was more diligent this time around to guarantee that he would be ready for it, and he is. He is all of that, and he looks great."
Wagner has already built a Hall of Fame resume, earning first-team All-Pro honors a franchise-record six times, Pro-Bowl honors eight times, and a spot on the 2010s All-Decade Team, but he isn't approaching this season as anything but a chance to continue to prove himself. He's also motivated by the fact that his last play in a Seahawks uniform saw him leave the field with an injury late in the 2021 season.
"I'm one of those guys who wants to prove that he's still got it," he said. "Also, my last play in a Seahawks uniform wasn't that positive. God blessed me with an opportunity to right that, and I'm excited to do that."
And in his return to Seattle, Wagner is confident that his defense and the team as a whole can take a step forward after an encouraging 2022 season.
"I think we can take this thing very far," he said. "I think we have talent at every position. I think we have talent on offense. We have depth at offense. We have talent on defense, and we have depth on defense. Now it's just putting everything together. It's a cliché, but you take it one game at a time. We are strong in a lot of areas, and it hasn't been that way in a minute. I feel very confident about where we're at and where we can go."
Check out some of the best photos taken of Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner from the 2023 season.