RENTON — When Bobby Wagner heads into the indoor practice facility at the Virginia Mason Athletics Center and glances at the banner celebrating the Seattle Seahawks’ Super Bowl XLVIII title, he can’t help but notice that just there is just one name listed of a player who’s currently on the team — his.
“That definitely crosses your mind,” Wagner said. “But it’s an evolution. I always felt like I was going to be one of the ones, God willing, who got to be around for a long time. And so here we are.”
Not that it’s been quite that simple.
This time a year ago, Wagner was attending OTAs (organized team activities) with the Los Angeles Rams, having been released by the Seahawks on March 8, a few hours after it was also revealed that Seattle had traded Russell Wilson to Denver.
Wagner shortly after took to Twitter to make clear that he was upset that the team had not notified him of his official release before he heard about it elsewhere.
At that time, few would have imagined that a little over a year later Wagner would be leading the Seahawks defense through bag drills to kick off the team’s first OTA of the 2023 season.
But there he was on Monday, back in his familiar No. 54, playing middle linebacker with the first-team defense when it took the field for the first time.
“None of that ugly 45,” joked quarterback Geno Smith, referencing the number Wagner had to wear in his one season with the Rams — 54 was taken by longtime Rams linebacker Leonard Floyd.
“Fifty-four is the natural number for me,” Wagner said Monday. “It looks good for me. I like these colors.”
But if the number remains the same, as Wagner glancing at the banner in the VMAC shows, much else has changed.
In the final year of his first stint with the Seahawks in 2021, he still had Wilson to look at on the other side of the locker room as a fellow member of Seattle’s famed 2012 draft class.
Now, Wagner is not only all who’s left from that draft class — and the Super Bowl title team — but at age 32 (he turns 33 on June 27), he is also the second-oldest player on the team behind only fullback/linebacker/special-teamer Nick Bellore.
It was Wagner’s advancing age and big contract that led Seattle to release him in 2022 to save $16.6 million against the salary cap and also open up the middle-linebacking spot — and the “green dot” helmet role of relaying the plays in from the sidelines to the rest of the defense — for Jordyn Brooks.
Wagner, who has served as his own agent sine 2015, quickly worked out a deal with the Rams, who were coming off their first Super Bowl title since the 1999 season and before they moved back to Los Angeles.
It seemed like the perfect landing spot for Wagner to end his career in his native Los Angeles with a team that appeared set up to keep winning big.
Instead, the Rams suffered a slew of injuries and finished 5-12, losing nine of their last 11 — one of the two wins coming against Denver and Wilson in which Wagner had an interception to help spur a 51-14 Christmas Day rout of the Broncos.
And with the Rams in re-tooling mode following what was the worst record ever for an NFL team coming off a Super Bowl title, the team and Wagner mutually agreed in February that he would be released and become a free agent.
While Wagner had other offers, he made it clear again Monday that he never really wanted to consider anything other than a return to Seattle.
“I was always going to be in Seattle or California,” said Wagner, a native of Ontario, California. “Whenever I’m done it’s going to be Seattle or California. So I’ll be around. If you see me, say hello.”
But Wagner hopes he won’t be done for a while, even if he is on a short-term commitment with the Seahawks, signing a one-year contract with Seattle for up to $5.5 million.
Wagner was signed in large part because of the uncertainty of when Brooks will return from an ACL injury suffered Jan. 1. Brooks was not present at OTAs on Monday, still rehabbing in his native Texas.
That had Wagner working as one of two starting inside linebackers alongside free-agent signee Devin Bush.
Wagner also said he anticipates again being the “green dot” play-caller, saying, “A lot of people can have the green dot, but I will be the guy for sure.”
Only now, instead of relaying those calls to Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, he’ll be relaying them to players such as first-round pick Devon Witherspoon, who was 13 years old when Seattle beat Denver in the Super Bowl.
He also is playing in a somewhat different scheme under second-year defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt, though Wagner on Monday downplayed there will be much of a transition.
“I think there is kind of a combination of a lot of defenses,” he said. “Some stuff that we ran in the past. Some stuff that I got introduced to with the Rams.”
Wagner joked that defending the run, no matter the scheme, “is always just ‘find the guy with the ball.’ So that’s never been tough.”
Wagner, though, said he thinks he can play at the same high level as always, saying he embarked on an offseason program that included more yoga and basketball than usual.
“I feel good,” he said. ” … Did some different things to get in better shape and just trying to continue to play at a high level and try to perform and show people that it can be done.”
What he also wants to do is end his Seattle career on a better note than he thought it had ended a year ago at this time.
It wasn’t just what Wagner thought was the indignity of how his release by the Seahawks that rankled, but he also had suffered a knee injury on the first play of the final home game of the 2021 season.
Limping off was not how Wagner — who, according to Pro Football Reference’s weighted career approximate value rating, is the most valuable defensive player in Seahawks franchise history — wanted to leave the turf at Lumen Field for the final time.
Now, Wagner knows, he gets a unique opportunity to rewrite the ending of his Seattle story.
“Feels good to be back,” Wagner said. “Nice to be back in 54. Nice to be back in some beautiful weather. It’s cool.”
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