When it comes to his football career, Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner says he has never looked too far down the road, instead keeping his focus on the next step.
“When I was in high school I just wanted to get to college,” Wagner said via Zoom on Wednesday. “When I was in college I wanted to get to the pros. (Once in) the pros I wanted to be a Pro Bowler, and then, you know, you heard about All-Pro, and so you just try to set little goals for yourself and try to see if you can get those goals and try to do it within the team and kind of control what you can. So I can control my play, control my effort, my consistency, and everything else kind of takes care of itself.”
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, though, is unabashed in saying that he thinks he knows where Wagner’s final football step will be — into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“He’s a Hall of Famer,” Carroll said Wednesday in the wake of Wagner’s latest accomplishment during the 23-17 victory Monday over the Eagles — surpassing 100 tackles for a ninth consecutive season. In the past 20 years, only one player has a longer streak (London Fletcher, 14). Wagner’s 1,174 tackles are the most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2012 and the most in Seahawks history, a record he claimed a year ago.
“He is exactly what you would hope to write up as almost the definition for the position,” Carroll said. “There’s been some great ones, and he’s one of them.”
None of this is new to Seahawks fans who have watched Wagner. But if consistency and longevity help separate Hall of Famers from the rest, then 2020 is as important as any season in making Wagner’s case for football immortality.
He turned 30 in June, an age when football careers often begin to descend. Two notable players who entered the NFL the same year as Wagner — quarterback Andrew Luck and linebacker Luke Kuechly — already have retired.
This season is the first season of a three-year contract extension worth up to $54 million (with $40 million guaranteed) that Wagner negotiated and signed in 2019, an achievement that also could have allowed him to rest on his laurels.
But if anything, Wagner has seemed to play with even more purpose. He has been rated in each of the past few weeks as the NFL’s best linebacker by Pro Football Focus with a season grade of 87.1 that is better than his 76.1 of last year and the fourth best of his career.
The most significant improvement has come in pass coverage. Wagner had the second-lowest pass-coverage grade of his career a year ago, via PFF, allowing a career-high 11.4 yards per reception when targeted. This year, that number is down to 9.6 and Wagner’s grade is up to 71.4 from 62.0.
“I’m appreciative of it,” Wagner said of the PFF rating. “I think the year is not done, so I can’t say whether or not I’m having my best year or whatever. But I just feel like I’m going out there and trying to play my best every game and make as many plays as I possibly can — that’s kind of been my focus.”
Wagner said that last week, before Monday when he displaying the coverage skills that have long separated Wagner from other linebackers. He roamed far downfield to break up a pass to Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert late in the first quarter. A better throw might have meant a completion, and Carroll said Wagner was supposed to have more help on the play. But that Wagner recovered to break up the play spoke volumes to Carroll.
“It isn’t just the tackles that he makes,” Carroll said when asked about that play Wednesday. “He’s a marvelous athlete, just an all-around athlete coordination-wise and timing and feel and all of that, and it takes all of those faculties to make choices in that kind of space and that kind of speed and that kind of depth and all to come through.”
Wagner’s athleticism helped compel the Seahawks to draft him in 2012 — enough that the team made some nervous in waiting until the third round to select quarterback Russell Wilson, to make sure they got Wagner in the second round.
But as Carroll noted, what can be seen on film is the easiest part of the evaluation. It’s what can’t be seen — instincts on the field, work habits and approach off it — that more often determines if a draft choice will pay off.
“We hoped that he would come through and be an all-timer, and we couldn’t have predicted that, but we had hoped,” Carroll said. “And he surpassed our expectations with his consistency, which all is based on his character. It’s the person that he is. He’s just got his act together in the world, and it shows up in his play.”
Among Wagner’s driving forces is the memory of his mother, Phenia, who died of a heart attack following his freshman year at Utah State in 2009.
Wagner to this day still has the 2008 Lexus his mother had acquired, turning in a minivan she had long used while raising four kids in Ontario, California.
Wagner said Wednesday he recently had the car refurbished, including new rims and a new interior.
“As long as I’m alive that car will be alive,” Wagner said.
Wagner said his mother always was his biggest supporter and “the loudest person at the games,” adding he probably would have “been able to hear (her cheering) through the (TV) screen” while fans are not allowed at games because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Wagner has tried to honor her not just through his play but also in his actions off the field. He was the Seahawks’ Man of the Year in 2019 for off-field work that included his “Walk with Wagner” for stroke awareness in the Seattle community. It’s a cause particularly important to him, as his mother had several strokes before her death.
“I think she would be proud of me,” Wagner said. “I think the biggest thing she would be most proud of is the humility, the consistency, being the same person that I always have been.”