For the second time this season, an all-time Seahawks icon is returning to Seattle with his new team Sunday.
However, the debate over linebacker Bobby Wagner’s reception as a member of the Los Angeles Rams could not be any different from the one that preceded Russell Wilson’s appearance four months ago with the Denver Broncos at Lumen Field, way back on Sept. 12.
Should you boo, or should you cheer? That was the raging debate for months among fans, if you’ll recall, once the schedule was released in May. The NFL, recognizing a good human drama when it sees one, had placed the Broncos in Seattle for the season opener, providing fans an instant referendum on their complicated feelings about Wilson.
It was a delicate balance between appreciation over Wilson’s 10-year body of work, and irritation over the way he had seemingly forced his way out of Seattle (and, yes, some of that irritation was based on the smarminess that Wilson often tended to project ).
Coach Pete Carroll definitely seemed to be pushing the fans to, well, give Wilson the business when he said, on Wednesday before the Broncos game (when asked how he wanted the fans to receive the quarterback): “You are either competing, or you are not, I’m leaving it up to the 12s. It’s game time, and we are going for it, so however they take it I will follow their lead on that. I’m not going to be involved in that opportunity to react, so I don’t have to make that decision. We will see what happens. I’ll leave it up to the 12s. I think they will know exactly what to do.”
That was widely interpreted as a license to boo Wilson, and that’s precisely what fans audibly did (leavened by a smattering of cheers, to be fair). The Seahawks pulled out a 17-16 victory, starting Wilson on his path to a thoroughly miserable 2022 season in every way.
With Wagner, however, the question isn’t whether fans will cheer or boo. Rather, it’s how long and loud will they cheer?
Here’s what Carroll said Wednesday when asked a similar question about how he thought fans would receive Wagner. This time, the tone and nuance was entirely different:
“Oh yeah, they’re going to be great. They love him. I think they’re going to welcome him back. I just think that’s what’ll happen. Then if he makes a tackle or something, then maybe they don’t give him as much love. I don’t know. He’s going to make some hits in this game. He’s playing good ball and doing good stuff, but they’ll do the right thing. Whatever it is, they’ll do it.”
Considering that Carroll once called Wagner “the perfect Seahawk,” the implication of what the “right thing” is in this case seems clear.
Wagner is that rarest of commodities: An all-time performer who left without any baggage, his reputation fully intact. There is nothing but unequivocal fondness towards Wagner, who came to Seattle in the same 2012 draft as Wilson and was cut by the Seahawks on the same momentous day as the Wilson trade in March.
Over that decade, however, Wagner’s relationship with the fan base (and the organization) was not nearly as complicated as the quarterback’s.
Certainly, that’s a reflection of the positions they play, the quarterback invariably being a lightning rod for strong opinion.
But it’s also a reflection of Wagner’s personality. There doesn’t seem to be any of the angst that was associated with Wilson, who like Wagner did tons of good deeds in the community, and on the field, but could also be divisive (should or shouldn’t he be allowed to cook ?) in a way that Wagner avoided.
The linebacker simply racked up his 100-plus tackles a year (way plus, in many seasons) and was a source of consistency. While teammates took veiled (and sometimes anonymous) shots at Wilson over the years — even more so this season, the epitome of hitting a man when he’s down — Wagner was an unparalleled and unanimously respected leader.
One huge difference between Wagner and Wilson coloring current perceptions is that Wagner wholeheartedly wanted to stay in Seattle. He was cut largely for salary-cap reasons (and left with a bit of hard feelings when, he tweeted, he didn’t hear of his release from the organization first — for which Carroll and general manager John Schneider apologized).
Here was Wagner’s final quote on the topic of his future with Seattle in the final weeks of last season:
“Obviously, I can’t control everything,” he said. “I can only control my part, and my part on this is I feel like I love this city, I love this team, I love the Seahawks. I always wanted to be a part of a franchise in the good times and bad times and every time. This is a team that I would love to be able to be a part of for a very, very long time. On my end, that’s where I’m at, that I’m a Seahawk until they tell me I’m not.”
They told him that, eventually, on March 8, making Wagner the last link to the “Legion of Boom” defense that helped win one Super Bowl and almost win another. Wagner was a five-time Seahawk captain, named to eight Pro Bowls and earned first team All-Pro honors six times, more than anyone in franchise history. Second on the list with four is Hall of Famer Walter Jones.
Here’s a sampling of some of the reaction this week from the Seahawks’ organization to Wagner’s pending return Sunday that reflects the esteem with which he is still held:
- Defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt (on the reception he hopes Wagner gets from fans): “That they will show him all the love and all the appreciation that he so richly deserves. I can’t say enough great things about Bobby [Wagner]. It’s one of those things in a competitive level where you want to go after guys and compete and go win and kick butt. There are certain guys, and he’s one of them, where you have so much admiration for a player and respect for a guy, you just want to see him do his very best. Obviously, he had a great game against us the last one out, and I hope all the 12s do that for him on Sunday. He deserves it and more.”
- Outside linebacker Darrell Taylor: “That’s going to be crazy. I think they will welcome him, for sure. He is a great guy, great leader, great player and great person, so I think they will welcome him. We, for sure, will too. That’s our old teammate, so we love him to death. He’s going to keep doing great things, as he should.”
- Quarterback Geno Smith: “Bobby is a great player. He’s a great player, Hall of Fame-caliber player. It’s extremely fun to play against him. It reminds me of practice. We used to compete all the time in practice. I was the scout-team quarterback. He started at middle linebacker. You guys know me, I wasn’t taking it easy. I was trying to go after him, and he embraced that challenge, and it made me better. To be able now to compete against him in real-life action, it just makes the game that much more fun because we know each other, and we are great friends. When it’s between the lines, we are in ‘go’ mode. … I hate that he got that interception on me.”
Smith is referring to the first meeting between these teams, a 27-23 Seahawks win at SoFi Stadium on Dec. 4 in which Wagner also contributed two sacks — and a season-high in affectionate trash-talking.
“He was loud,” Smith said with a laugh. “They were getting a little chippy in there. All of the talk between him and DK [Metcalf], a lot of funny stuff. It was fun. He’s the Bobby that we know, talking his stuff, playing his game, and he had a great game, so we’ve got to make sure we limit that this upcoming Sunday.”
Like Wilson with the Broncos, Wagner is suffering through a miserable Rams season, minus perhaps the same level of schadenfreude. Beset by injuries, the Rams have gone from Super Bowl champions last season to a 5-11 record this season, one of the biggest falls from grace in NFL history. Yet Wagner is having a stellar season and would love nothing more than spoiling the Seahawks’ playoff chances.
Wagner never got a proper Seattle send-off, when he registered a career-high 170 tackles, then sprained a knee on the first play against the Detroit Lions in the home finale in Week 17 and missed the rest of the game. Wagner did not play the next week in the season finale at Arizona.
With the uncertainty looming over his future, and the abruptness with which he left the Lions game, there was no chance for fans to shower Wagner with the affection befitting a player of his exalted status. That opportunity will come Sunday, and I have little doubt they will avail themselves fully.
As Carroll said, they’ll do the right thing.