Before the start of the 2018 season, Seahawks cornerback Shaquill Griffin was talking to reporters when linebacker Bobby Wagner interrupted the conversation to jokingly remind his teammate that, despite starting 11 games the previous year, he was still a "rookie" until the team's defensive captain decided otherwise.
Three months later, Griffin was lying on the floor in front of his locker prior to a Tuesday afternoon practice when he was asked if, 10 games into his second season as a starter, he was still a rookie in the eyes of his All-Pro teammates.
"Nah," Griffin said not so confidently while simultaneously looking to his left to make sure Wagner wasn't in earshot.
Griffin then laughed, and continued, "Pretty sure I'm not anymore," while still on the lookout for Wagner.
It's all in jest, both Wagner's assertion that a second-year starter needed his say-so to shed rookie status, and that an established NFL starter was really worried that Wagner would hear that recent exchange with a reporter, but it's just one example of the respect Wagner carries not just in Seattle's locker room, but in the entire building.
"One of the biggest things he brings to the table is being able to voice his opinion and getting people to listen to what he's saying," Griffin said. "You can see how much respect everybody in this organization has for him—not just in here, in the organization. Once something comes out of his mouth, everybody listens. It's easy to follow a leader like that, because he brings so much to the table, and he doesn't think about himself when it comes to that. Bringing my brother (rookie linebacker Shaquem) along, or any young linebacker or the defense as a whole, he's making sure everybody is prepared for any situation, even if it's time for somebody to be the next man up, he's taking it upon himself to make sure those guys are ready. That's the type of leader you need on this team. And he has experience winning. He knows how to win, he knows what it takes, and he's teaching us how to be winners. He's someone who has major respect from everyone in this organization."
Adds third-year defensive tackle Jarran Reed: "He means everything. That's our leader, that's our anchor, that's our top guy on defense. He does a great job as far as leading the right way and showing young guys how to do it. It's very respectful, a lot of guys have respect for him."
Wagner's respect comes not just from what he does between the lines—and the on-field accomplishments are many—but for what he has come to mean to the organization in his seven seasons with the Seahawks, whether in the form of leadership with his teammates, or in the way he took the time on a player's day off to work his way around the third floor of the Virginia Mason Athletic Center—a place players aren't often seen, though Wagner, K.J. Wright and Tyler Lockett are a few of the rare exceptions—because it was employee appreciation day and Wagner wanted to let team employees know they were appreciated. Yes, Wagner, a four-time All-Pro making millions per year still had time on his day off to play shuffleboard with the ticketing department.
Wagner, like his fellow 2012 draft classmate Russell Wilson, has long been one of the team's most important players on his side of the ball, but in a year in which Seattle's defense underwent a lot of turnover—some of it by design and some of it due to injury—the former second-round pick out of Utah State has never meant more to his team.
"He has been the centerpiece of all of it on defense for years," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's not just playing, he's calling everything, he's given people the adjustments and the confidence to play aggressively and get after it because he knows what he's doing, and he can help settle situations. He's a great communicator with (defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.) as well, so that they can really get everything done just like we want to get it done. He's a fantastic player."
Wagner, who has earned first-team All-Pro honors three times in the last four years and who is a four-time Pro Bowler, is again playing at a very high level even as the players around him have changed. Through nine games—he missed one with a groin injury—Wagner has recorded a team-high 74 tackles, and his team-leading nine passes defensed are already a career high. It's just the continuation of an exceptional career, with Wagner recording more than 100 tackles in each of his first six seasons, a franchise first, including a team record 167 tackles in 2016. Wagner's career tackle total of 850 ranks second in team history. In Wagner's 97 career games played, the Seahawks defense has allowed just 17.1 points per game, nearly four points better than the 20.9 points per game Seattle has allowed in the nine games he has missed due to injury.
But more than ever, what might be most important about Wagner's play is the way he helps make the players around him better, allowing Seattle's defense to still function at a high level even after so much offseason change. During this past offseason, the Seahawks released cornerback Richard Sherman, traded Michael Bennett, and had it confirmed that safety Kam Chancellor and defensive end Cliff Avril would not be able to play in 2018 due to neck injuries sustained the previous season. Then the Seahawks opened the season without K.J. Wright, who on Sunday will miss his eighth game of the season due to a knee injury, and in Week 4 safety Earl Thomas went down with a broken leg. That means Wagner and Seattle's defense have played a significant portion of this season without six Pro Bowlers who were mainstays in previous years, yet despite all of that, and in no small part because of Wagner, the Seahawks head into Sunday's game at Carolina ranked eighth in scoring defense (21.6 points per game), 11th in total defense (348.1) and 12th in takeaways (16) despite a current three-game drought in that category.
"He's just the glue," Norton said. "When everybody knows Bobby is in there, everything is going to be all right. He's running, he's hitting, he's making his signal calls, he's checking defenses, he's calling different defenses and he's blitzing, he's covering, he's running down with the fastest receiver on the other team, he does it all. He's the complete package."
Norton, who was Wagner's position coach from 2012-2014 before leaving to become the defensive coordinator of the Raiders, returned to Seattle this year as defensive coordinator, and saw a more grown up player, one who no longer has the luxury of letting veterans like Chancellor, Thomas, Sherman, Bennett and Avril lead.
"It's amazing watching a young player learn how to play the game, learn how to be a pro and then see him become a pro—a really good pro, and just watching his evolvement and his growth has really been amazing," Norton said. "And his ability to speak up, his ability to express himself both physically, emotionally, mentally and then being able to carry it over and make people around him better. He's learned how to not only be a really good player, but make the guys around him better and bring the group with him. It's really fun to watch the growth of a player and a leader happen right in front of your eyes."
Wagner sees things similarly to Norton, a former All-Pro linebacker himself in a lot of ways, so it's not surprising that he described this season as "a year of growth" for himself.
"You kind of have to restart your thinking," Wagner said. "When I was a rookie and I came here, I was trying to figure out my voice within a lot of older established guys. Now, it's kind of reversed. It's trying to connect with the younger guys and try to find a way that I can help them and pass the knowledge that I have because that's what the guys did when first got here. They were just giving me a lot of knowledge and I ran with it, so now it's my turn to pass that knowledge down. As far as the communication, it's been cool. I think when you have a guy like Sherm who you talk trash with during the game, the communication with Kam and my communication with K.J., even Mike (Bennett)—you lose all that. Sometimes you talk trash and the person ain't there, and you've got to get used to it. Everybody is growing, everybody is finding their own. B-Mac (Bradley McDougald) is a good guy to talk trash with."
Yes, Wagner is one of the most respected players inside and out of Seattle's locker room, but he still finds time to talk a little trash—sometimes with a second-year corner who he isn't quite ready to let grow up and leave that rookie label behind.
The Seahawks and the Panthers have faced off 12 times, including three postseason matchups. The Seahawks currently own eight wins in the series and will play the Panthers again this Sunday in Week 12 of the 2018 NFL season.