RENTON, WA - During the first eight years of his NFL career, Bobby Wagner grew accustomed to going hoarse and not being able to hear himself think playing in front of boisterous crowds at Lumen Field. With the 12s smashing decibel records and occasionally creating seismic activity, the Seahawks benefited from one of the best homefield advantages in all of professional sports.
But when Wagner and his teammates jogged out of the tunnel onto the field for their first regular season game last September against the Patriots, very little resembled a typical NFL game at one of the league's most revered stadiums. While the field still was 100 yards long and players were in uniform, all 72,000 seats sat empty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fake crowd noise hummed quietly over the speakers, failing to come close to replicating the usual pandemonium on game day.
At home and on the road alike, there were certainly unique advantages to playing in a fan-less stadium as the Seahawks did for most of the 2020 season and at first, Wagner actually enjoyed the silence. He didn't have to scream to the top of his lungs to communicate with teammates and it was far easier to have play calls and other pertinent information relayed to the field from the sidelines.
According to the perennial All-Pro linebacker, sometimes you would hear coaches that don't cuss "cuss a lot during the game." Sometimes, it was all too easy to hear the opponent on the field, including play calls, forcing players to be more guarded and more creative about how they communicated with teammates.
“It was super easy. It was even easy to hear the offense sometimes. I was thinking they’re running really basic stuff. They would say, ‘hey tight end, run out.’ We can hear that. Y’all got to come up with a better way of saying that. It was funny," Wagner laughed.
But with the NFL instituting a rule that the volume of the fake crowd noise couldn't be changed or pumped up once the game started, it didn't take long for Wagner to pine for the deafening euphoria that normally followed up big plays at Lumen Field. After defensive end L.J. Collier upended Patriots quarterback Cam Newton at the goal line on the final play to seal a 35-31 win, for example, there wasn't the customary roar from the crowd. Players and coaches could only celebrate amongst themselves.
Most importantly, while Wagner appreciated being able to speak freely with teammates on the field, such an advantage didn't outweigh the power of the 12s disrupting opponents with their ability to relentlessly turn up the volume.
"After that, just having a game like the Patriots game where we make this crazy stop and there’s not any crowd noise, it obviously played a factor. We used it to our advantage as well. When teams come in and maybe they’re a huddle team or a team that likes to make checks at the line of scrimmage, they have to minimize their plays because the communication is not great. I’m excited to have that back. I’m excited to lose my voice and not be able to hear again. It should be fun.”
Although the COVID-19 delta variant continues to cause problems for the country and the world, sellout crowds have come back to NFL stadiums across the league. The Seahawks welcomed 60,000-plus fans to a pair of preseason games at Lumen Field last month and after not being able to play in front of them at all last season, coach Pete Carroll is chomping at the bit to see what the 12s have in store for their first regular season game in two years when the Titans come to town on Sunday.
"We have such a special relationship with the 12s and the following around the Northwest. It was so uncomfortable last year to not share the experience with them because the game has always been that, where we do it all together," Carroll said on Wednesday. "To know now that are fans get to come, take part in it, and be in this game with us is a big deal. It’s exciting, there’s nothing bad about it, and it’s all good, but we want to make sure that everyone that comes brings the stuff that they need to get in and takes care of business so that they can enjoy the day and have a great outing. We are so excited that we get to do this, it’s too bad that we have to wait a few days. It should be really exciting, fun, and we have to play good football so we make it the kind of stadium that it can be."
If there's one potential downside to fans returning to the stadium, Wagner understands communication on defense can be impacted significantly by the noise intended to force opponents into silent counts and shortened play calls. Both sides have to make adjustments accordingly, and with veteran K.J. Wright now in Las Vegas and two young linebackers in Jordyn Brooks and Darrell Taylor playing alongside him, additional measures such as hand signals will be critical to ensure everyone remains on the right wavelength amid the chaos.
“100 percent. I think there’s definitely a level of over communication that has to happen too, just make sure everything is clear," Wagner explained. "In the road games or games like last year, you can kind of get a confirmation because people can hear you, but in this game there might be a chance where somebody might not hear you. You can’t take any chances whether the person heard you or not. You’ve just got to do it and overdo it and make sure we’re all on the same page, especially playing a good team like this.”
Nonetheless, even if Wagner has to utilize different nonverbal measures to broadcast calls and audibles to his teammates, he did so without issue for eight years quarterbacking historically great defenses that fed off of the energy of the crowd. The benefits far outweigh the drawbacks and with the stakes being raised for the regular season opener, he can't wait for his ears to start ringing once again and hopes to see the offense forced to play with a hand behind their backs as a result.
“I think it’s going to be crazy. Our fans are really excited to be back. We’re excited to have them back. Just hearing them in the preseason game where I don’t feel like there was as many people as they’re going to be and it’s the first game and it’s a big team. It’s going to be crazy and hopefully it’s as loud as I think it’s going to be.”