The traditional awkward dance between the Seahawks and a star player seeking a third contract is underway again. This time, LB Bobby Wagner seems be going out of his way not to step on toes.
After the unpleasantness with Earl Thomas a year ago, and Richard Sherman before that, and Kam Chancellor before that, Wagner decided to show up for practice. But not actually practice, until a deal for an extension is struck.
As holdouts go, this is more like arched eyebrows, as opposed to hostage self-taking.
“I will be here, as my participation,” Wagner said Tuesday after the first voluntary organized team activity (OTA) that was open to media. “Doing whatever I can. Just being a leader, sending the right message.
“I feel like the quarterback of the defense is pretty important. Not having that piece would kind of put a damper on the defense. That’s why I’m here. That’s all I will be, is here.”
It’s a strategy that seeks to walk between the worlds. He’s not in the full pout that Thomas was, not showing up at all, but he doesn’t want to seem a patsy in a negotiation that he is pridefully handling himself, with no agent.
Above all, he does not want to have happen what happened Monday to fellow LB Rueben Foster, who was lost for the season in an OTA drill in Washington’s camp, when he merely moved awkwardly in a non-contact drill and tore an ACL.
Any injury before a contract extension is struck would leave Wagner in a situation much like that in 2017 for Sherman, who lost millions in future earnings when he played into his contract year and tore his Achilles tendon. The Seahawks let him go injured into free agency, when he signed for much less to join the 49ers.
Wagner’s goal, and it is a plausible aspiration, is to be the game’s highest paid linebacker. That title belongs to the New York Jets’ C.J. Mosley, who in March signed a free-agent deal worth up to $85 million over five years, $51 million guaranteed.
The $17 million average annual value constituted a big spike in the LB market — Carolina’s Luke Kuechly is next-highest at $12.4 million — so much so that it was believed to have been a factor in last week’s abrupt, ill-timed firing of Jets GM Mike Maccagnan. Jets owner Chris Johnson apparently felt that Mosley, despite his four Pro Bowl selections in five seasons in Baltimore, was massively overpaid by his dopey GM.
Seahawks GM John Schneider, if you could ever get him to stop muttering under his breath about it, likely would have agreed.
The deed, however, is done, and Schneider had to re-do his salary cap whiteboard.
“That’s the standard,” Wagner said of Mosley’s deal. “That is the plan to break it.”
That’s about as clear a target as one gets ahead of these talks — straight from the agent and the player.
Coach Pete Carroll didn’t want to convey distress by blinking, coughing or retching, so instead merely read from the figurative company script.
“Okay, here’s the way we’re saying that,” he said. “If you watched this, as you have all throughout the off-season, there’s been a process of step by step. We’re right in stride with the process.
“Bobby’s been great. Everything’s going to come together in time. Everything’s in order. We’re in order of what we want to do. It feels very comfortable and very amicable and all of that. So everything’s going just right.”
Carroll so wants to tuck in the 12s with a nice bedtime story.
It may come true. After nailing the services of Russell Wilson at the top of the QB market, a feat achieved with less tension than many had forecast, the Seahawks, after the injury retirement of WR Doug Baldwin, have about $24 million salary cap space to help make Wagner the top-paid linebacker.
But the fairy-tale ending has to work around a familiar plot twist: Age.
Mosley is 27 in June, and Wagner is 29 in June. You know how the Seahawks get when players approach age-30 contracts. It’s as if 30 is the new 60.
It’s not just the Seahawks. With the exception of quarterbacks, who are these days protected by rules that act as virtual Kevlar jackets to extend careers indefinitely, teams are increasingly reticent to employ expensive, damaged veterans when younger, cheaper, healthier help is available that is almost as good.
While nothing in Wagner’s play suggests any downturn, the idea of giving such a powerhouse hitter big guarantees spread over five years seems a bit chilling to the exchequer.
After seeing Chancellor at 29 and DE Cliff Avril at 31 go down with career-ending injuries on what seemed like fluke-contact tackles, it’s not as if the Seahawks have to make up stories of bad outcomes.
Whether Wagner will accept fewer years and less guaranteed money than Mosley will be key points in a conversation already underway. Wagner seemed somewhat nonchalant about potential outcomes (a poker face is always good in these episodes).
Earlier, he said in an interview with NFL.com that he is preparing as if this is his last season in Seattle. Tuesday, he indicated as much.
“I am here and that’s what I want to do,” he said after watching practice from the sidelines. “This is my decision. As of right now there is no other years for me left here, so that was just a very honest opinion that if I don’t get a deal done, that’s it.
“I’m a professional.This is what it is. As of right now, my contract ends at this year so that’s where it stands. I am honoring the contract, helping the young guys to be the best they can be. But I believe there is something that can happen.’’
There is enough time between now and the start of training camp in late July for a deal to be struck. Until then, there is no reason for a premier talent in his eighth year to take physical risks now in a voluntary workout, or even in the mandatory mini-camp in June.
“There is no other reason” for staying on the sidelines, he said. “It’s a very tough thing to go through. You don’t necessarily know how to handle staying out.
“I’m not trying to turn this into some big drama thing, a drawn-out thing. It’s a business. If it works out, it does, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Cool.”
After watching so many of the Super Bowl stars leave, no one needs to tell Seahawks fans it’s a business.
But by being present, mentoring his potential successors and staying out of harm’s way, Wagner is walking between the worlds, playing an unusual card that says there is a little more to him than straight cash. An agent would have told him he was nuts.