By Gregg Bell The News Tribune
RENTON — A vaguely familiar-looking linebacker wearing No. 54 stepped from the shade, walked before the assembled cameras and recorders and made an announcement.
“Hi, I’m Bobby Wagner, new middle linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks,” Wagner, the starting middle linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks since the first game of his 2012 rookie season, said with a grin on Monday.
Moments earlier Wagner had completed his first practice with the starting defense since Aug. 2, when he strained his hamstring in a team scrimmage. Monday he was sprinting all over, from sideline to sideline, crowding running backs on pass coverage in the flats and stepping up into rushing lanes inside again, just as he has in 34 regular-season and postseason starts in his two years as a Seahawk.
“When I got out there I didn’t feel tired at all,” he said. “That’s why we do all the running in the offseason and getting in shape. I feel like I’m still in pretty good shape.”
It’d only been three weeks and two days. But this is the NFL, the realm of few guaranteed contacts — and even fewer guarantees on a player maintaining his livelihood tomorrow, no matter how accomplished he was yesterday.
So to Wagner, it seemed like forever. Or at least long enough to formally reintroduce himself.
“It was great. I got tired of watching everybody have fun, so it was good to have fun, too,” he said of being back in the center of what was the NFL’s top-ranked defense last season.
That unit is getting whole again at the most opportune time; the opener against Green Bay is 10 days from Monday. Malcolm Smith (ankle surgery) returned to practice last week for the first time since he became the Super Bowl’s most valuable player in February. Fellow outside linebacker Bruce Irvin (hip surgery) could be back next week.
Seattle has a final exhibition game Thursday night at Oakland before the games get real. Wagner would love to play in that.
“Yeah, I would like to get out there before to get a feel for the game,” Wagner said, “but at the same time it’s still the game we have been playing for a long time. So I think I will be fine.”
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll would love for his starter in the middle of his defense the last two seasons to first simply get through another practice on Tuesday.
“We really are judging how he feels (Tuesday. That) is probably the most crucial,” Carroll said. “It’s been a long haul for him, waiting it out. I think we probably waited well and he’s ready to go.
“He looked very, very good today.”
If Wagner does play against the Raiders, it likely be a cameo appearance. Same goes for most of the 21 other starting Seahawks.
Asked if quarterback Russell Wilson will take even one snap in Oakland to end what for him and the offense has been an exquisite exhibition season, Carroll went characteristically coy.
“We’ll see,” the coach said, grinning. “Everyone’s going.”
Presumably, that means at least going on the trip to Oakland. More than a dozen veterans didn’t make the trip to Denver for the exhibition opener Aug. 7.
That was four days after Wagner injured his hamstring chasing down ball carrier Robert Turbin during a team scrimmage.
“I actually caught him — with a strained hamstring,” the 241-pound Wagner said of the 222-pound running back. “So I let him know he’s got to get his speed up.”
That’s not the only teammate Wagner’s been ribbing. He and his defensive teammates had a blast this past weekend cracking on All-Pro safety Earl Thomas for getting tackled by Chicago’s rookie punter Patrick O’Donnell at the Bears 16-yard line at the end of his 59-yard punt return Friday.
“Of course,” Wagner said. “He’s always talking about how fast he is — and he got caught by the punter.”
Wagner did note that O’Donnell ran a 40-yard dash in an unofficial, un-punter-like time of 4.53 seconds at this winter’s NFL combine — a fact he probably knows from Thomas’ self-defense mechanism this weekend.
But still …
“You’ve got to give him a hard time over the punter,” Wagner said.
Wagner’s injury had the more-than-fringe benefit of the Seahawks finding his new backup. Unexpected, undrafted Brock Coyle started the first two exhibition games for Wagner. Coaches and teammates have raved over how being a starting middle linebacker in the NFL hasn’t overwhelmed Coyle at all.
Now the captain of the Montana Grizzlies in the Big Sky Conference of the lower, Football Championship Subdivision until a few months ago is five days away from earning a job on the regular-season roster of the Super Bowl champions.
Coyle’s roster spot, to be determined by the final cuts due on Saturday, got more secure with Monday’s news 10-year veteran Heath Farwell has a major groin injury that may end his Seahawks’ and perhaps NFL career. Farwell was Coyle’s competitor at backup middle linebacker.
“He probably has to have surgery on his groin. So that’s a very, very difficult situation for him,” Carroll said of the 32-year old who was Seattle’s special-teams captain last season. “He had extensive damage and everything points to surgery.”