How much does Bobby Wagner value K.J. Wright?
Richard Sherman, then Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor, Cliff Avril, Sheldon Richardson and eventually holdout Earl Thomas all left Wagner’s previously legendary Seahawks unit this offseason.
Yet it wasn’t until Monday during practice when Wright was gone, too, that Wagner looked around his huddle wondered for the first time: “What the hell happened to my defense?”
“That’s when I was, like, ‘Wow! Where everybody at?’” Wagner, the All-Pro middle linebacker, said Tuesday following practice for Thursday’s preseason finale against Oakland.
Wright was at a surgery center getting arthroscopic knee surgery Monday. The team and its Pro Bowl weakside linebacker suddenly decided he needed that to fix a knee that just wasn’t feeling right, according to coach Pete Carroll. That decision came after Wright played 45 snaps Friday in the preseason game at Minnesota.
Unlike all the other Pro Bowl and All-Pro icons long gone from Seattle’s once-championship defense, Wright is coming back. The Seahawks just don’t know when.
Tuesday was Wright’s second day away. The second day Wagner felt like a stranger in a strange, new-old defense, detached from his partner at linebacker for the last seven years.
Carroll said Monday when announcing Wright had the surgery the team didn’t yet have an estimated timetable for his return to playing. When asked the coach if Wright had any chance to play in the opener Sept. 9 at Denver, Carroll said he didn’t know that, either.
Wagner is uncomfortable. He’s unaccustomed. But he’s not worried.
“Nah, I’m not concerned. We’ve been through too much to be concerned about him,” Wagner said, sounding almost spousal.
“It was something that was necessary for him to do. We’ve got to make sure he’s right. It’s definitely going to be a fun season, and we have to have him out there.”
After 218 combined starts, five playoff appearances, two Super Bowls, and five total Pro Bowl selections all while playing next to each other on all downs, running and passing, Wagner and Wright can finish each other’s sentences as well as play calls.
Knowing Wright as closely as he does, Wagner was asked if he believed his pal will be able to recover from a knee surgery in 13 days to play in the opener.
“I don’t know,” Wagner said. “I spoke to him. He said everything went well. And that’s pretty much it. I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know of a timetable or anything.
“But I believe there is a chance. But I don’t know.”
Wagner said the knee had not been paining Wright or weighing on his mind for a long time but was a more recent concern for just not feeling right. That made Wright want to seek a solution now, to come back while the regular season was just beginning.
Wagner likened it to Wright leaving the team last August to get regenokine treatment. That alternative treatment involves spinning one’s blood to increase the concentration of healing agents and injecting that concentrated blood into that person’s injured area.
“I think it was one of those things, just what you do to maintain the body,” Wagner said of Wright’s knee scope Monday.
Unless Wright can pull of an impressive rebound from knee surgery in less than two weeks, Wagner will be lining up for that opener in Denver with eight of the other 10 starters around him on defense new since last season.
Continuity is as gone as the Legion of Boom from Seattle’s defense.
Rookie linebacker Shaquem Griffin is getting ready to start for Wright next to Wagner in Denver. It will be Griffin’s first NFL game.
Yet Wagner says: “I feel good. I feel great. I’m excited for the opportunity.”
Going into the preseason Seattle’s remade defense was Wagner, Wright and nine guys few outside the Pacific Northwest had heard of. Wagner and Wright formed the nerve center and axis to the Seahawks’ defense that led the league in fewest points allowed four consecutive years through 2015. That’s the longest stretch since Paul Browns 1950s Cleveland Browns.
Seattle drafted Wright out of Mississippi State in 2011 to be the fast, tall, rangy “Will” linebacker Carroll needed to make his 4-3 defense with sliding, versatile, 3-4 principles work. A year later the Seahawks drafted Wagner out of Utah State to be the must-have relay and action man to Carroll’s plan, a uniquely fast, strong, smart and indestructible centerpiece of what within two years became a dominating, Super Bowl-winning unit.
Wagner is already missing Wright tangibly, in the huddle and in the chaotic seconds before each snap. The two share an unspoken understanding. That allows Wagner to simply look at Wright and vice versa while the linebackers are simultaneously reading and processing opposing receivers in motion, backs shifting, plus the quarterback and opposing linemen barking calls fake and real.
Wright has the innate understanding of Wagner and of Seattle’s defense—especially so now that their beloved mentor and former Seahawks linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. has returned from three seasons away running Oakland’s defense to be Seattle’s coordinator. Wright often simply nods his head at Wagner before snaps.
That’s how the two star linebackers ensure the correct information and adjustments get disseminated to every one of the 11 defenders before the offense runs its play.
Try doing all that inside 10 seconds with a dude you just met. That’s where Wagner now is with Griffin, where he apparently will be in Denver Sept. 9.
“It’s a guy you’ve been playing with for seven years,” Wagner said of Wright. “We’ve got a good routine with our communication. We both help each other with calls. I have a lot of calls (before each snap). He helps me and takes some of the calls off my plate. Maybe I am talking to the line over here, and maybe he can talk to the DBs or the safeties over there while I’m doing that.
“So a lot of that is something that we’ve grown accustomed to. And you just get used to doing it that way.
“When he’s not there it’s, like, OK, I have to make those checks—and I have to make sure that whatever was over here has gotten checked, as well,” Wagner said.
“So it’s a little more communication on my part.”
Further complicating this situation: Griffin has gone through as many accelerated regular-season weeks of intense, crash-course game-planning and film study of the Broncos as you have.
“Yeah,” Wagner said, chuckling.
“But fortunately he is very, very smart.”
Plus, Wagner thinks it’s harder for rookie to learn Seattle’s defense and how to react to offenses now, in the preseason, than in the real season. One reason is because the installation of new schemes that swamps rookies in training camp. Wagner also points out right now the Seahawks are not game-planning for preseason opponents. They don’t have calls in for this game week specific to the scouted formations, personnel groupings and plays they have seen from the Raiders and are expecting Oakland to use Thursday.
They will be doing all their work next week for Denver, and only Denver.
“It’s hard to do right now, in camp,” Wagner said. “But in the regular season you are focused on this particular team. And you have a week. And you have certain plays you are looking for, things of that nature. It’s easier to have that type of communication, and to have it preset before the game.”
Wagner said if it comes to what seems likely, Griffin starting next to him in his first NFL game for Wright in Denver, he’s just got that much more communication to do. And he’ll do it.
“My job is to (let him know what) I’ve been telling him the whole time: It’s just a game. You’ve been playing it all your life,” Wagner said. “The difference is, maybe there are more people watching.
“I think (Griffin) is already a step ahead of things on the mental side. And he’s obviously got the speed.”
But he isn’t Wright.
For Wagner, no one is.
“It was voicing my support to a guy who puts in so much work,” Wagner said. “There’s a lot of talk around the league, and from everyone; there are a lot of guys holding out. There are a lot of guys wanting more money, and things of that nature. But we have a guy like K.J., who has been here since OTAs. He’s been here since minicamp. He’s gone through the grind. He’s a leader. He’s all these different things. You have to show your love and support for that guy, too. Because he’s not a problem. He’s not doing anything wrong. He’s doing everything right.
“You have to make sure you are conscious of that, for your organization.”
It turns out, Wright being with the Seahawks from day one of the offseason entering the final year of his contract preceded him needing knee surgery.
Put another way: Thomas hasn’t needed knee surgery because of holding out.
“So, you have a guy like that who is doing right, you have to take care of him,” Wagner said.
“With Sherm, Mike Bennett, all these guys are more vocal. And he’s not as vocal. Maybe sometimes he gets overshadowed.
“But this is our opportunity, me and K.J., to do some special things.”
Wright’s contract is obvious a concern of Wagner’s.
As for Wright’s surgery?
Wagner said again, with a smile: “No, I’m not concerned.”