He’s one of the best players on any field at one of the toughest, most demanding positions in the ultra-competitive, ultra-loud NFL.
And he is almost silent off it.
“Two different people,” Seahawks mashing middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said, well, quietly. “Off the field I’m who I am. I’m quiet. I talk when I want to. I kind of just be me.
“On the field I understand it’s a whole different personality. Gotta be loud. Gotta tell everybody where they’re going. Gotta be vocal. Gotta speak. I understand that, and make the change.
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As for fun away from football, he likes to play basketball — “a lot,” he says.
“If the Lakers are looking for a small forward or a guard or whatever, I’m always open,” the Southern California native and former high-scoring, high school small forward joked.
He also likes to shoot pool. He likes to hang out with his family, his father, Bobby, and his brother and sister when they make their frequent visits from California. He also enjoys just hanging out with his Seahawks teammates.
And those guys are really enjoying Wagner right now.
Seattle’s second-round draft choice from out-of-the-way Utah State in 2012 has 43 tackles through four games entering Sunday’s personal challenge from NFL rushing leader Demarco Murray and the Dallas Cowboys (4-1) at CenturyLink Field.
Wagner had eight tackles with a sack and three tackles for loss Monday night as the Seahawks (3-1) held Washington to 32 yards rushing on 17 carries. Those eight, thudding tackles were his season low.
Some low. Wagner is on pace to smash the team record of 153 tackles by Terry Beeson from the 1978 season. Plus, Wagner has played every snap on defense this season — all 254, and counting.
In Seattle’s base 4-3 defense. In the nickel, five-defensive backs, two-linebackers schemes. In temperatures that reached 120 degrees on the field last month in San Diego and had teammates dropping around him and going to the locker room for intravenous fluids. In whatever, Wagner has yet to leave the defense for even one snap.
He is the primary reason Seattle leads the NFL in run defense, allowing 62.3 yards rushing per game.
“He’s making all kinds of things happen,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “He’s playing with speed. He’s playing physically, and making his hits.”
He is now being considered among the NFL’s top two middle linebackers — along with Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers, Wagner’s training partner at IMG Academy for sports-performance training in Bradenton, Florida, before the 2012 draft.
Not bad for a 6-foot, 241-pound middle man who is making $781,618 a year while still on his rookie contact. Not bad for a guy who got exactly one offer out of high school in Ontario, California, because everyone thought (still thinks) he’s too small.
“Yeah, my only offer. Utah State,” he said of the Western Athletic Conference school in Logan, Utah, with a population of 48,000, just outside the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
“Yeah, that pissed me off. It pissed me off a lot,” he said. “Especially none of the California schools (offered me a scholarship), and I wanted to stay in California.
“But I’m here, so can’t complain.”
Neither can the Seahawks.
While most of them were basking in the afterglow of the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship last winter into spring, the former basketball-first teenager was back at team headquarters grinding to achieve what he is experiencing right now.
“When you go back all the way to the offseason with Bobby, one of the things is the work that he put in,” said defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, the man who sends in the play calls Wagner disseminates from the center of the field. “I think there’s another guy that deserves a lot of credit here in Bobby’s development and that’s (linebackers coach and former Super Bowl-champion player) Ken Norton. He knows a thing or two about playing linebacker.
“So for those two guys to spend as much time as they have in the smallest of details of playing the position, I think that’s really an important factor. (It was his) mindset and commitment that he had to really want to take his game to another spot.”
Four games in, Wagner’s game has indeed zoomed to another spot. He tied his career high with 14 tackles in this season’s opener against the Green Bay Packers.
Then again, Wagner gets everywhere quickly. His speed is unique to the point of almost being unprecedented for a middle linebacker. He ran a 40-yard dash in a wide receiver-like 4.46 seconds at his pro day at Utah State in the spring of 2012. That would have been the fastest 40 for a linebacker at the NFL combine that year — if Wagner hadn’t gotten sick and missed it.
What also makes Wagner unique: he is about as tough as he is fast. That allows the Seahawks to use him among linemen to fill inside lanes like an anvil on running downs — and the next play deploy him 20 yards downfield in nickel, five-defensive back coverages against the pass.
Quinn says Wagner is even better than he was last year, when he was darn good with K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith on a linebacker unit overshadowed by the team’s self-styled “Legion of Boom” secondary.
“How fast he’s now playing (is) due to the fact that there’s another year in the system,” Quinn said. “For us, you’ve heard us say the words: fast and physical. I think he really embodies that.”
Wagner shrugs. He says most of his success comes from 330-pound defensive tackle Brandon Mebane swallowing two and three blockers on running plays. That has often left no one to block Wagner — and Wagner to thump the ball carrier before he knows what hit him.
“By far, he’s the reason I’ve been playing how I’ve been playing,” Wagner said.
“He’s done a great job keeping guys off me. I’m surprised no one has noticed how great he’s been playing.”
Asked what he does to show his appreciation to Mebane, Wagner shrugged again.
“I mean, I say thanks,” he said. “I could take him out to eat or something like that.”
Then he thought of his payday that is about to come, and the contract Mebane has for being in this league for five more seasons than Wagner. He realized perhaps Mebane should be taking him out for a meal.
Mebane is earning $5.5 million this year, the next-to-last season of the five-year, $25 million deal the defensive tackle signed with the Seahawks before the 2011 season.
Wagner is earning $781,618 this season. He’s still has two seasons left on his rookie deal he signed after Seattle drafted him in the second round in 2012.
“He’s got a little bit more than me right now,” Wagner said, smiling, “so …”
That’s not going to stay that way. The Seahawks are likely to give serious consideration — and serious money — to a contract extension after this season.
They know how good Wagner is. So do opponents who can’t block or run past him.
By now it probably doesn’t surprise you this quiet force isn’t clamoring for noise from the outside.
“Coming out of the draft it was, ‘He’s nothing. He went to Utah State,’ ” Wagner said. “It’s just a chip on the shoulder. And it’s always going to be that.
“As long as guys in this room recognize what I do, that’s all that matters to me. As far as the outside, the outside will come eventually, God willing.”
WR Percy Harvin and SS Kam Chancellor missed Thursday’s practice. The team said Harvin has a new thigh injury. Chancellor was listed with an ankle injury. Chancellor considered surgery to fix bone spurs in his ankles last month before finding higher-cut, mid-top shoes that alleviated the pain and allowed him to play through it. He and Carroll have said that pain may be a maintenance issue all year. It was the most extensive practice day of the team’s shortened preparation week, so it could have been precautionary rest. Carroll is expected to address their status Friday. … C Max Unger missed a second consecutive practice with a sprained foot. That increases the chance fourth-year veteran and Bellevue High grad Stephen Schilling will make his first career start at center Sunday. … RB Marshawn Lynch returned to practice after resting Wednesday.