Not that football needs another statistic, but the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) category used in baseball might be the perfect means to measure the value of middle linebacker Bobby Wagner to the Seattle Seahawks.
And that value might never be in more vivid display than Sunday against a speedy and versatile Philadelphia Eagles offense that can be a linebacker’s nightmare.
With slashing back LeSean McCoy, who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards, and darting Darren Sproles, who averages 6.6 yards per carry and also has 29 receptions into the short zones, the Eagles can shred a defense that can’t match their speed.
Wagner is one of the few who can. If all 10 toes are working.
He has missed all or part of six games this season because of a toe injury, and the Seahawks struggled to go 3-3 in his absence, trying to get by with rookie Brock Coyle at the middle or moving over outside linebacker K.J. Wright into Wagner’s spot.
When Wagner is functional and plays the entire game, the Seahawks are 5-1, as he pursues from sideline to sideline, scraping and filling gaps, and almost unfailingly bringing down ball carriers in his radius.
And when he returned for the recent games against Arizona and San Francisco — crucial contests against divisional rivals — Wagner led the team in tackles, and the Seattle defense assumed the impenetrability that lifted the team to the Super Bowl last season.
That degree of domination, actually, was better than during any two-game span last season, as they allowed a combined six points and only two drives inside their 30-yard line.
The Hawks allowed a combined 368 yards, and were plus-four in turnovers in picking up two victories they needed to get back in the NFC West race.
Coach Pete Carroll, when asked of the impact of Wagner’s return, spread around the kudos.
“Well, in general it sure seems like it has helped; it’s been great having him back,” Carroll said. “We’re playing the kind of football that makes us proud — the kind of stuff that we were hoping to play like on defense, and it’s taken us a while to get going. Coincidentally, Bobby comes back at the same time we kind of turn it (around), so let’s give him some credit for being a part of that and helping everybody else feel more comfortable.”
Seems like faint praise to me.
The defense definitely has benefited from the return of injured cornerback Byron Maxwell, and the seeming return to full health of strong safety Kam Chancellor.
But Wagner is so much more than his tackle numbers. On the first possession against San Francisco, he twice rocked 49ers running back Frank Gore. Earl Thomas and Chancellor leveled big hits on that tone-setting defensive series, too, but Gore had been a Seattle nemesis, and Wagner let him know it was going to be a bad day (10 carries, 28 yards) from the start.
Wagner has another year on his rookie contract, but the team could start working on an extension at the end of this season, having set the precedent of early extensions of core defenders such as Chancellor, Thomas and Richard Sherman.
Since early in the season, when the pre-injury Wagner was on pace to obliterate the team record for tackles in a season, Sherman has been lobbying in the media for Wagner to be recognized for his Pro Bowl-caliber performance.
He took up the cause again this week, after Wagner totaled 18 tackles against the 49ers and Cardinals.
Wagner’s return, Sherman said, was “a huge part” of the recent defensive revival, and his consistent excellence is worthy of league-wide recognition.
Wagner’s capacity to cover receivers and tackle in the open field allows the Hawks to leave him on the field in every situation, which will be a key against the Eagles’ hurry-up attack.
And his speed and sure-tackling will be critical in keep McCoy throttled and Sproles from turning the short passes into big gainers.
It makes this game the best chance for Wagner to prove his worth for now and into the future.