It’s one that fellow linebacker Bobby Wagner would like to have back, and there weren’t many of those during a season that ended with his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance and fourth first-team All-Pro nod in the past five seasons.
“Ahhhh,” Wright says with a chuckle after watching the replay of Kansas City Chiefs running back Damien Williams elude a diving Wagner with a spin move. “He gotta bring his feet. He gotta bring his feet.”
The play was not all that consequential. It gained 5 yards in the first quarter of a game Seattle won by a touchdown. It was significant only for this reason: It was the lone tackle Wagner missed in the regular season, by Pro Football Focus’ count. He finished fourth in the NFL with 138 stops, meaning he went 138-of-139 on tackle attempts over his 15 regular-season games.
“That’s why he’s [a] 99 overall,” Wright said in reference to how Wagner has the maximum rating in the Madden NFL 20 video game. “That’s just impressive, man. Some linebackers miss multiple [tackles] in a game.”
There are several reasons why the Seahawks just made Wagner the NFL’s highest-paid inside linebacker with a three-year, $54 million extension, a serious reinvestment from a team that has seemed to operate more cautiously with veteran players seeking third contracts.
The 29-year-old is the captain of a defense that now runs through its linebackers and, in Pete Carroll’s words, “a beautiful … example of what a young man should be like.” He’s reliable, missing only two games over the past four seasons. And then there is his on-field dominance, which is perhaps best illustrated in his tackling numbers.
He has surpassed 100 tackles every season since Seattle drafted him in the second round in 2012, and he leads the NFL in tackles over the past five seasons with 656, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. That total is 28 more than Luke Kuechly, who along with Wagner has been the standard-bearer at the position.
“He’s always been a tackling machine,” Wright said. “But to have that ratio in missing one tackle, not too many guys — no one is doing that in a league.”
Indeed, Wagner was the only defender among those who combined for at least 80 tackles in 2018 to miss one or fewer, according to PFF. Among that group, De’Vondre Campbell had the next-fewest, with three misses to go along with 86 tackles. No one other than Wagner who had at least 100 combined tackles missed fewer than six of them, and no one else with at least 125 combined tackles had fewer than nine misses.
Kuechly (131) and Darius Leonard (153), the other two first-team All-Pro linebackers from last season, each missed nine. Two of the second-team linebackers, C.J. Mosley (103) and Leighton Vander Esch (134), missed seven and 13, respectively. Joe Schobert, a linebacker for the Cleveland Browns, led the league with 24 misses and was one of 20 players with at least 15.
No other linebacker came close to Wagner in PFF’s tackling efficiency rating last season. He finished at 139. Jon Bostic and Campbell were second and third, respectively, at 63 and 29.7.
“He’s smart, he’s efficient, he’s extremely athletic, he knows his space,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. “He has great balance and he doesn’t get out of position much. He keeps his feet together and balanced like boxers do, keep them nice and balanced. You’ll never see him off balance much. He’s got good, strong hands, once he gets his hands on you it’s over.”
As the son of a former heavyweight champion who once broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw, Norton knows boxing. And after playing linebacker for 13 years in the NFL, he also knows how difficult it is to go through a regular season with a single missed tackle.
“A lot of the great linebackers, they don’t do that,” Norton said.
Per PFF, Wagner’s previous low was three misses in 2017. He missed between six and 15 during his other five seasons.
As Wagner noted, he missed another tackle in the Seahawks’ wild-card loss to the Dallas Cowboys. It came on a pivotal fourth-quarter Dak Prescott run. But Wagner clearly remembered his miss in the regular season as well; all it took was a mention of Kansas City to jog his memory.
“Twenty-six came across,” he recalled. “I didn’t make it. I had one in the playoffs and Marshawn [Lynch] tried to say I had one, but I ain’t miss one versus Marshawn.”
It’s an amazing feat in this age of football, when the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement limits the number of padded practices teams are allowed to have and thus the number of opportunities to tackle at full speed. It’s particularly rare during Seahawks practices, where players will wrap up but almost never bring each other to the ground. The first time that happens is typically in the preseason, and starters — especially established ones like Wagner — play only sparingly.
Wagner has to use his imagination.
“There’s just a lot of opportunities if you can sit there and visualize yourself while you’re in the game and visualize if you’re not in a game if you would make that play or not,” he said. “You can make about a thousand tackles in your head, so that makes a guy pretty confident.”
Wagner, Aaron Donald, DeAndre Hopkins and Khalil Mack are the only four players to receive a 99 rating in in the latest Madden release. Wagner’s skill-specific ratings include a 99 for awareness, an 88 for speed, a 98 for hit power and — you guessed it — a 99 for tackling.
Wagner was working out with Wright and other teammates earlier this summer when they all got word at the same time that he had joined the “99 Club.”
“One of the trainers was like, ‘Hey, Bobby got a 99!” Wright recalled. “Everybody was like, ‘What?!’ Everybody started screaming at him. … That’s special, man. That don’t get no better than that.”