The very first article to appear in The Seattle Times about the Seahawks’ newest draftees, Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner, was headlined: “Hawks’ no-name picks have something to prove.”
That sentiment became their guiding principle, the driving force that propelled Wilson and Wagner to become instant rookie starters, long-term stars, likely Hall of Famers and Seattle athletic legends.
They came in together, drafted less than two hours apart on April 27, 2012. And on a momentous and emotional Tuesday of this past week, they went out together, too. Wilson was traded to the Denver Broncos, and Wagner was released in a money-saving move, a double-barreled transaction that symbolized the end of a golden era of Seahawks football.
Those two were the ones who endured while other shooting stars of the Super Bowl championship team departed one by one — Marshawn Lynch, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Doug Baldwin and K.J. Wright.
But Wilson and Wagner lasted a glittering decade, perpetually driven by their shared desire to disprove the doubters who emerged instantly by panning the Seahawks’ 2012 draft. ESPN’s Mel Kiper gave Seattle a C-minus and said it had taken Wagner a round too early (Wagner consistently declared they had taken him a round too late); one writer from Bleacher Report gave the Seahawks an “F,” a slight that Wilson never, ever tired of bringing up.
It was a gift, really, because whatever negativity was uttered — Wilson was too short, Wagner didn’t have the prototypical linebacker’s size — was filed away for fuel.
Asked once midcareer how long he was going to embrace the chip-on-his-shoulder mentality, Wagner replied, “I’m using it until they kick me out of the league.”
In his introductory news conference with Seattle media, Wilson said, “People tell me that I’m too short. I’ve been told that my whole life. I think the main thing is I have all the other tools. I have big hands, long arms, and the main thing is I have a big heart.”
Like Wagner, Wilson’s heart manifested itself in the community, where they both became immersed in charitable causes. And it showed on the field, where these two rookies impressed from the very first minicamp.
The Seahawks, you may recall, had just traded David Hawthorne, so they had a hole at middle linebacker and brought in veteran Barrett Ruud to potentially fill it. Once Wagner started roaming the field in workouts, Ruud was traded to New Orleans in short order.
Wilson, meanwhile was seemingly going to apprentice with a backup role while being groomed to start in some future season. Tarvaris Jackson, their starter in 2011, was still on the roster, and so now was Matt Flynn, freshly signed to a three-year deal for a guaranteed $20 million after serving as Aaron Rodgers’ backup in Green Bay.
But Wilson and Wagner simply willed themselves into the starting job, and never relinquished it for a decade. The Seahawks originally planned to have strongside linebacker Wright call the defensive signals to take some of the pressure off the rookie, but Wagner proved such a quick study that the plan was nixed. Early in the season, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said Wagner was so dialed in with his calls that it was as if he was reading the coach’s lips.
Carroll, meanwhile, ignored the old-school wisdom of his mentor, Bud Grant, who stated that you lose a game for every rookie you started. Carroll threw Wilson into the QB mix virtually from the start, and then marveled at how Wilson, like Wagner, absorbed the playbook from the get-go. Over three days of the rookie minicamp, Wilson ran roughly 500 plays and attempted 400 passes, and Carroll recalled just one time when Wilson stumbled over the verbiage.
So with a week to go before the 2012 opener, Carroll called Wilson into his office, gave him a hug, and informed the sixth quarterback taken in that draft — after Andrew Luck Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Brock Osweiler (not to mention punter Bryan Anger) — that he had won the job.
“It’s your opportunity now,” he told Wilson.
It was a conversation Carroll had already had with Wagner — a guy who hadn’t started playing football until his junior year of high school because he was concentrating on basketball; whose only college offer came from Utah State (“Everyone else was telling me I sucked,’’ he would say wryly); and who had to skip the NFL combine because he got ill with pneumonia, among other ailments, and threw up so violently he burst blood vessels in his eyes.
So began one of the most blessed partnerships in Seattle sports history, Wilson winning more games than any quarterback in history over his first 10 years, Wagner serving as the quarterback of the defense for a decorated decade. And he did it with a disarming charm that belied his ferocity.
“Don’t take kindness for weakness,’’ then-linebackers coach (and later defensive coordinator) Ken Norton said of Wagner. “He has a movie-star smile, but he’ll bite you with those white teeth.”
Carroll would later call Wagner “the perfect Seahawk,” a distinction that held true as well for Wilson, at least until he began to express dissatisfaction in 2020 that ultimately contributed to his trade.
Together, Wilson and Wagner soared to the loftiest of heights, winning Super Bowl XLVIII in a 43-8 rout over Denver. Wilson ran the offense that day with flawless precision, and Wagner was a key cog in a Seattle defense that shut down a Broncos team that had scored more points than any in NFL history. Quarterback Peyton Manning, who had set a record for most yards and touchdowns, was befuddled at least in part by Wagner barking out signals — some of which he admitted were fake — immediately after Manning’s trademark “Omaha” and other code words.
“You’ve got to understand, some of his calls are fake, too,” Wagner said with that movie-star smile.
Defense, Wagner once said, is a chess game — “but I like chess.”
The two would also plummet to the depths of agony when they lost the Super Bowl a year later, just one yard from pulling out a victory over the Patriots. Wilson shouldered the responsibility for throwing the shocking interception that came on a play call that will be debated for perpetuity.
“I put the blame on me,” Wilson said afterward. “I’m the one who threw it.”
The Seahawks have been chasing that glory ever since, with Wilson and Wagner as monuments of durability. Wilson had never missed a single game until a finger injury in 2021 knocked him out of three. Wagner started 110 out of 112 games from the start of the 2015 season through the end of last year, when a knee injury sidelined him in the finale.
Now they will leave a huge void in Seattle’s lineup, and beyond, when the 2022 season arrives. Wilson and Wagner are no-names no longer. And they proved that those names deserve to be remembered forever in the annals of Seahawks history.