Bobby Wagner talks about his added jobs this season, the leadership he and Bradley McDougald have provided to the changed defense
When Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett then Earl Thomas all went out of town, the Seahawks’ once-champion defense had lost its leadership.
That’s what the rest of the NFL said, all spring and summer.
Sherman went so far to say upon getting waived in March that his now-former Seahawks had “lost their way.”
This remade, revitalized team has two words to say to that while on the verge of returning to the playoffs:
“Everybody was so focused on comparing this team to what we had, they forget about what we STILL had,” All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner said Wednesday.
Foremost, they still had Wagner. He’s the hub of the defense around which Sherman, Chancellor, Avril, Bennett and Thomas went to five consecutive playoffs and consecutive Super Bowls in the Februarys of 2014 and ‘15.
They still had their undisputed leaders on offense, 29-year-old franchise quarterback Russell Wilson and 30-year-old Pro Bowl wide receiver Doug Baldwin.
But these Seahawks have rebounded from 0-2 and 4-5 starts to win four consecutive games, and are a victory at San Francisco on Sunday from clinching a playoff berth, largely because of emerging leaders in a locker room.
You know, what they were supposed to be without now that all those stars are gone.
“I know everybody says ‘Oh, well you’re going to lose all this leadership, how are you going to be?’ I didn’t feel like that,” coach Pete Carroll said.
“I felt like we had plenty of guys that had already been factors as leaders throughout the squad. And there’s been a few surprises. “
There are new leaders on the offensive and defensive lines. Left tackle Duane Brown is influencing Seattle’s locker room for a full season for the first time, after his trade from Houston last fall. He’s doing it with positive reinforcement and sage wisdom of a 33-year-old veteran of Pro Bowls on a unit of 20-somethings. Defensive end Frank Clark and tackle Jarran Reed have stepped into the voids left by the departures of Bennett, Avril and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson—and are two of the best performers on the team this season.
The Seahawks have defied expectations throughout the country, the region, and yes, their own city thanks to leadership from other, unforeseen sources. Bradley McDougald let the “Legion of Boom” bellow their words and actions last year, McDougald’s first season with Seattle after signing from Tampa Bay.
“It’s a respect thing,” Wagner said. “When you have a guy like Kam and the amazing leader that he is, you’ve got to let him do his thing. And you’ve got Mike B. and certain guys who have been in the game a lot longer than you’ve been in the game and have seen more things than you’ve seen, you have to respect that. You have to learn as much as you possibly can from them before it’s your turn.
“I think that’s what they were doing.”
This season, with Sherman, Chancellor and Thomas gone, the 28-year-old McDougald is the most veteran member of this “Legion of Whom” secondary. And he’s become a vocal, rah-rah leader for the first time in his six-year NFL career.
“It’s not something I spent my offseason thinking about: ‘Oh, boy, I’m going to come in here and tell these guys (and) be a leader,’” McDougald said. “It kind of just got hand-delivered to me. Every room just needs somebody, a voice in the room, a reason and guy to bounce stuff off of. And I was kind of the guy at the point, and I have more experience than a lot of players in the secondary at the time.
“So guys just kind of gravitated towards me.”
Wagner has noticed how McDougald has become of one the most indispensable Seahawks this season. That three-year, $13.95 million extension to which Seattle signed McDougald this offseason is a bargain now.
Not only is he making sure tackles on receivers after catches in the open field and stopping rushers from getting big gains, he’s knocking down passes—such as the one on fourth fown in the end zone Monday night that denied the Vikings a touchdown in the fourth quarter of a 6-0 game. The Seahawks went on to win 21-7.
“I think he came in with a lot of confidence, came in knowing that he wanted to be the guy that everybody kind of turned to and everybody can count on,” Wagner said. “So you can tell his focus on studying, his focus on trying to be the guy to make sure he can make plays and make guys better, was an emphasis for him. I think you just kind of see that coming into fruition with the way that he’s been playing, how vocal he’s been, the leadership that he’s had.
“He’s grown so much through OTA’s and he’s been extremely important for our team.”
It’s one thing to say: Clark, McDougald and Reed are now leaders. How does that manifest itself in games and in preparation for them?
McDougald is gesturing angrily and woofing with teammates and against opponents during games. At practices in meeting rooms, he is teaching rookie starting cornerback Tre Flowers, 2017 draft pick and starting free safety Tedric Thompson and all others across the secondary. Clark and Reed, the team’s sack leaders are spending almost every day showing rookie end and third-round pick Rasheem Green the nuances of beating an offensive lineman with your hands as well as your feet.
Clark’s career-high 11 sacks have made the 25-year-old a prominent leader for the first time, in the final months of his rookie contract.
So have comments like the ones Clark made about Sherman beginning this 49ers game week. Clark responded to a question about Sherman saying the Seahawks, winners of four straight including 43-16 over Sherman’s two weeks ago, are a “middle-of-the-road” team.
“At the end of the day, ‘middle of the road,’ that’s just Richard Sherman being Richard Sherman,” Clark said Monday night after the 21-7 domination by Clark and the defense of the Minnesota Vikings. “He’s not in this locker room no more, so his opinion really doesn’t matter. They’ve got some problems over there in San Fran that he needs to be worried about.
What have been the tangible benefits of these emerging leaders for Seattle’s defense has eight new starters compared to last season’s opener?
“Kind of to the point where I was talking about when we had that kind of camaraderie with me, K.J. (Wright) and Kam and guys like that you create this vibe, where you have a leader talking to his group,” Wagner said. “I’m talking to my group. You have another guy talking to his group and everybody is speaking the same and talking the same and on the same page.
“That’s what makes us play so fast and play so connected, because everybody’s on the same page. ...You see everybody wanting the best for one another and everybody wanting to see the other person successful and you understand this game is bigger than you. You’re playing for other people’s families, and I think that’s kind of the main focus.”
McDougald said he’s recognized he needed to be louder, more demonstrative than he’d been in six previous seasons, including four with Tampa Bay and his rookie season of 2013 when he barely played for Kansas City.
“I always try to be a leader just by actions. I don’t really care about the hoo-rah, do the speeches,” he said. “That’s been something new for me, I’ve been adjusting to, getting used to. But I’ve always been a guy to go out there and put it on tape on practice every day, so guys could be like, ‘Oh, I like how that guy works,’ instead of being that guy who is a speaking guy.
“But, you know, it’s been different. It’s making me accountable. It’s definitely pushed me. I have to hold myself to a higher standard because I know people are watching me, or listening and taking heed to what I have to say.”
I asked coordinator Ken Norton Jr. how McDougald has been a leader on his defense.
“Well, he’s just been himself,” Norton said Wednesday. “He’s smart. He’s been around. He’s a guy that understands the ball game. He has a really high football IQ and the players know it and they really respect him for what he does.
“He’s a guy that brings the guys together and teaches, communicates well and he has a lot of experience and he makes a lot of plays. He’s a guy you certainly want to be out front.”
Wagner thinks this leadership from front to back has been as big a factor as the defense’s 21 takeaways and plus-11 turnover margin, second-best in the NFL (Chicago, plus-13) for this success few outside his locker room expected this season.
“It’s really important, especially having the young team that we do, it’s important to have a solid leader in every position group because you are going to have young guys who ask questions,” Wagner said. “We are going to have all types of things happen, all types of challenges happen during the season. It’s always good to have a guy in there that can talk through it and help out in every way possible.
“We have that in every room. I think that’s what’s helped us grow as fast as we’ve grown. Guys have been willing to step up. Guys have been willing to be more vocal, and kind of take charge.
“That has helped our team grow probably faster than people expected.”