RENTON This time last year Michael Wilhoite was a part-time starter in a completely different scheme for a completely opposite franchise, the two-win San Francisco 49ers.
This time last month, Wilhoite couldn’t even get on the field for the Seahawks. He had a calf injury that wouldn’t heal.
Now he is preparing to start in the middle of Seattle’s for the franchise’s most pivotal regular-season game in memory.
All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner missed Wednesday’s practice because of the hamstring he strained in the third quarter of last weekend’s loss at Jacksonville. That left all the plays and on-field preparation for Sunday’s home game against the Los Angeles Rams for the NFC West title to Wilhoite.
Pro Bowl weakside linebacker K.J. Wright also missed practice while still in the league’s concussion protocol following a head-to-head hit with a Jacksonville lead blocker last weekend. Carroll said Wright is going to be a game-time decision on playing against the Rams, though his prospects so far have sounded more positive than Wagner’s.
Coach Pete Carroll said Wagner, who re-injured a hamstring that had kept him from practicing for most of the last month, also is going to be a game-time decision about playing.
True to his competitive nature and the fact he’s missed just one game in three years, Wagner thinks he’s going to play. Then again, a strained hamstring isn’t usually a pain management issue; either he will be able to run, or he won’t.
"He’s very upbeat and very positive," Carroll said. "He’s planning on getting ready. That’s what he’s doing."
So is Wilhoite.
“We can’t expect those guys to be healthy all year. This is football, and as you see, guys can go down at the drop of a hat,” he said. “So, we all have to be prepared. You have prepare like you’re a starter and you have to go out there and play like that.
“If you can’t, you shouldn’t be here.”
How big a deal is this, for this game?
First, though Carroll calls every game a championship opportunity, this week’s truly is for the Seahawks. And with all-or-nothing odds. A win over the Rams would give the Seahawks the division lead based on two victories over Los Angeles and a 79-percent chance of making the playoffs. That’s according to the analytical staff at FiveThirtyEight.com.
A loss to the Rams drops the Seahawks’ postseason chances to a sickly 19 percent. They would be two games behind L.A. in the division with two games remaining in the regular season, and they lose tie-breakers with Atlanta. The Falcons, who beat the Seahawks in Seattle last month, are the NFC’s other 8-5 team and currently hold the conference’s last of six playoff spots.
Wilhoite, who turned 31 last month, has never started a game over six NFL seasons as a middle linebacker in a 4-3 base scheme, which is what Seattle uses. He was one of two inside linebackers starting 36 games from 2013 through last season in San Francisco’s base 3-4.
Asked for two noteworthy facts about his former 49ers teammate, so we can get to know Wilhoite a little better, Seahawks running back Mike Davis said Wednesday: “His eyes are small. Sometimes, you don’t know if he’s awake.
“And his beard is really long.”
Until this week, Wilhoite was the Seahawks’ new starting strongside linebacker outside this season. At least when he wasn’t sidelined for two games by that calf injury.
How big a difference would it be with Wilhoite in the middle instead of Wagner?
Wagner has 115 tackles this season, a bit behind his 2016 pace when he set the franchise record with 167 stops while being voted as an All-Pro for the second time.
Wilhoite has 18 tackles this season.
The Rams’ offense revolves chiefly around running back Todd Gurley. Los Angeles coach Sean McVay has said this week he needs to have Gurley run it more than the 13 times he did last weekend in the Rams’ home loss to Philadelphia that kept Seattle in the NFC West race.
"He is going to be a huge part of what we are going to try to do offensively (at Seattle)," McVay said on a conference call with Seattle-area reporters Wednesday.
Sounds like Gurley is coming right at the Seahawks, anyway. Think maybe he’ll be doing that nearly every down if it’s Wilhoite and not Wagner at middle linebacker?
The Seahawks have held Gurley to his fewest yards rushing and receiving of any foe the third-year veteran has played more than one time. But that’s been with Wagner and Wright running him down.
After Wagner and Wright got hurt in the third quarter against the Jaguars, Wilhoite went to middle linebacker and usual special-teams players Terence Garvin and D.J. Alexander filled in at outside linebacker in base defense. Jacksonville scored 27 of its 30 points after Wagner got hurt, and got a clinching 13-yard run by Leonard Fournette on third and 11 late because the substitute linebackers overran their assigned run gaps.
"Well, I’ve been inside my whole career basically in San Fran. So it’s more natural for me. I’m more comfortable there. I’ve seen it more often, gotten more reps," Wilhoite said. "But for the most part it’s more comfortable for me.
"The outside, you know, with the reps and as the year’s gone on it’s become more comfortable for me and I’ve gotten a little bit better at it. It’s more routine. But at the end of the day, inside is my history so it’s a little bit more natural for me."
Wilhoite said earlier this season, when Wagner was healthy, coaches rotated him in "every once in a while to get some reps" at middle linebacker with the starters.
"They make sure we are ready in case something were to happen," Wilhoite said.
Something has indeed happened.
And it has the potential to affect not only Sunday’s game against the Rams, but Seattle’s season.