The player had stripped off his jersey and was on a far practice field, making him hard to identify from a distance.
The three horn blasts to signal the end of Seahawks practice echoed across Lake Washington half an hour earlier, and all the players headed for shade or for lunch or media obligations — even the rookies and free agents who usually stay late trying to make good impressions with extra work.
But this guy was still over by the lake on the far end, near the power poles where the bald eagles perch.
He had an assistant acting as if he were a running back sneaking through the line on a pass pattern and breaking into various routes. The player covered him tighter and tighter, in monotonous succession.
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When he finally knocked off and walked toward the headquarters building, he came into focus — it was middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, the player who two days earlier had signed a contract extension that will pay him $43 million for the next four years — about $10.75 million a year.
Sometimes you can learn more about a player by watching him before or after practice than during. So when he walked past, I asked him if that kind of extra work was how players earned the big contracts.
“Gotta keep gettin’ better,” Wagner said.
It wasn’t an interview; that was the only question I asked him. But that was pretty much all I needed to know to shape a column about Wagner.
I certainly didn’t need to ask how he would respond to his new wealth, or how he would approach the next four seasons as the man at the core of what will go down as one of the NFL’s great defenses.
All I had to do was watch him work. Here was a guy who had just seen his salary increase roughly $10 million a year. But he did not see this as the time to throttle back, to savor the fruits of his arrival. It was time to perfect his mechanics, to pay even closer attention to the details.
It was interesting that Wagner would feel it necessary to work on covering those routes. In practice that day, the exact situation arose in team sessions and he played it perfectly.
Tailback Christine Michael had sneaked through the line, planted, faked and cut sharply to his left. Michael has wicked quickness, but Wagner read the move and reacted so quickly that he was able to cut inside Michael and bisect the path of the pass, deflecting it with his fingertips.
It was impressive coverage. First rate. It should be expected, as Wagner was named an All-Pro last season. He’s made 445 tackles including the postseason. Nobody has made more Super Bowl tackles in his career than Wagner (22 in two appearances).
And yet he just turned 25 a few days before training camp started.
“He’s getting better as far as being a student of the game; a lot of the stuff he did his first two years was just raw talent,” said Lofa Tatupu, a former Pro Bowl middle linebacker for the Seahawks and now an assistant coach.
“With a guy like that who’s already establish, and led this defense to Super Bowls and prominence, we just ask him to fine-tune his technique.”
Wagner is a quiet presence on a defense that has any number of players who talk, players who chirp, players who intimidate, players who unleash hoochie-coochie sack dances.
His game is more of an understated excellence. What speaks clearly is the statistical evidence of Wagner’s value, easily quantified by comparing the Seattle defense in games when he was healthy against those when he was sidelined last season.
He missed 51/2 games because of a toe injury, and in those games the Hawks were 3-3. Opponents rushed for more than 100 yards in four of those six games.
In the games he played, the Hawks were 9-1, and opponents broke 100 yards rushing only twice. They allowed 20 points a game when he was out, 6.5 per game in the last six of the regular season once he returned.
Money changes people in a lot of ways, and it’s a consternation to front-office types who try to predict how young, hustling players will respond once they get that second contract. Do they stay hungry? Or do they start thinking about cutting corners?
Nobody knows how to measure that internal nugget of need that pushes them.
Wagner certainly shows the heart of a guy who works the night shift at a foundry. And he now approaches linebacking like a craftsman, aiming to do all the small things well. That’s how to create a polished product, the kind of thing that is not only a thing of beauty, but also will last through time.
Where most of us would have seen a nicely deflected pass in practice, Wagner must see the way only a small improvement in his coverage could turn that deflection into an interception and maybe a touchdown return in the season opener at St. Louis.
And so Wagner stays out there after practice, giving evidence that for him it’s not about getting richer, just better.