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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Back when he was Brett Favre's anxious understudy, in an effort to fire up his fellow scout-teamers, Aaron Rodgers busted out an over-the-top celebration on the practice field. Many of his fellow Packers cracked up – and The Belt was born.
Rodgers, in an effort to rile what he hopes will be a rejuvenated Green Bay Packers defense, unveiled his latest and greatest triumphant gesture a few days ago, one he describes as a "nice white-guy dance." Striking a pose with his hands on his ears and gyrating his hips like an actor at an ill-fated "Magic Mike" audition, the reigning NFL MVP put the camp in training camp.
Rodgers wasn't simply playing for laughs. Given the disappointing way the Packers' 2011 season ended, with the reigning Super Bowl champs suffering a 37-20 divisional-round playoff upset at the hands of the New York Giants, there's an edge to this training camp that the star quarterback has done his best to nurture.
This is especially true for the men staring across the line from Rodgers. After finishing with the league's fifth-ranked defense in their Super Bowl season, the Pack plummeted to the bottom of the league's rankings last season, an embarrassing effort that veteran defensive back Charles Woodson sums up as "anemic."
That Green Bay somehow managed to flirt with an undefeated campaign and finish 15-1 was a testament to the brilliance of Rodgers and his offensive teammates. In the eyes of Woodson, the Packers' most decorated defender, the quarterback's regular-season brilliance (Rodgers' mind-boggling numbers included 45 touchdown passes, six interceptions, 4,643 yards and a single-season record 122.5 passer rating) created a sense of indomitability that cost the team when things counted most.
Against the Giants last January, after allowing a Hail Mary from Eli Manning to Hakeem Nicks that gave the Giants a 20-10 halftime lead, the Packers remained confident.
"Regardless of what happened in the first half, nobody thought we would lose that game," Woodson recalled Sunday as he sat in that same Lambeau Field locker room. "With what our offense had done that season, I think we had, especially defensively, a false sense of security about what they were gonna do.
"Maybe we should have panicked. But we didn't. We just felt like, 'Hey, at the end of the day, the offense will put up enough points, we'll win the game and move on.' That was probably to our detriment."
Woodson's shift to safety in the team's base formation was just one of the many elements of the Pack's predictable defensive makeover. General manager Ted Thompson used his first six draft picks on defenders, beginning with outside pass rusher Nick Perry, a first-round pick out of USC, and continuing with second-rounders Jerel Worthy (tackle) and Casey Hayward (cornerback).
Throw in the signings of three free-agent defensive linemen, Anthony Hargrove (who faces a possible eight-game suspension for his role in the Saints' pay-for-injure scandal), Phillip Merling and Daniel Muir, and Rodgers likes what he sees staring back at him in practice.
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"There's a different feel to camp," Rodgers said. "We added a lot of guys to the mix, and there's a lot more enthusiasm in practice on the defensive side of the ball – a lot more energy, and a lot of guys making plays.
"The defensive line is as deep as I've seen it in eight years. There'll be some really tough cuts. That side has more of a personality this year, and I think it's a direct result of the guys we brought in. Anthony Hargrove and Danny Muir have big personalities, and they're bringing more out of B.J. [Raji] and the guys around them."
Packers coach Mike McCarthy has also noticed the increased energy on the practice field, something he hopes can spur a defensive revival.
"Oh yeah, it's evident – there's more personality, more juice," McCarthy says. "The competition is higher than it's been, and it's extremely healthy on the defensive side of the ball.
"My biggest disappointment – really, it starts with me – was the confidence level with our defense last year. You just can't keep correcting. When a pattern of behavior doesn't change, you have to do something about it, and if you don't, I don't know how you can expect that group to stay confident. I think the confidence level was probably our biggest deterrent and I think that led to some of the breakdowns we had, and I've got to do a better job of managing it."
McCarthy also has plans to energize an offense that led the NFL with an average of 35 points per game in 2011. He'll start by dusting off the unused game plans for the Pack's NFC championship and Super Bowl matchups that were obliterated by the defeat to the Giants.
"We're doing some new things this year," McCarthy says, "actually things I wanted to use in the Super Bowl run. I think we have a chance to be better, frankly. That's our goal. You win championships with great quarterback play, and we have a great quarterback. I believe we have as good a chance as anybody."
Rodgers, too, sees room for improvement, though it may not be as quantifiable as some would like.
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"I can play better overall football," Rodgers says. "And it might not equate to that many touchdowns or that few interceptions, but I think I can play slightly better football. I had a lot of things happen last year – didn't have the unfortunate amount of tipped interceptions, and guys made some plays. The year before, we had nine or 10 guys get pushed out of bounds or run out of bounds inside the 5[-yard line]. Last year those were all touchdowns.
"I think I can play even more consistent football than I did last year. And again that might not be the same QB rating or touchdowns or interceptions – or wins, for that matter – but I think I can overall have an even more complete season."
Given his current level of play, Rodgers believes "100 percent" that any season in which the Packers don't win a championship represents a missed opportunity. His friend and frequent foil on the practice field, linebacker Clay Matthews, shares that sentiment.
"You look at the key to Super Bowl championship teams, it's an MVP-caliber quarterback and an elite defense," Matthews says. "We had both [in 2010] and won a championship. Last year, we had half of that.
"We picked the most inopportune time to play our worst ball. The fact is, [the Giants] didn't beat us; we beat ourselves. We need to play our best ball when it counts. This year, I expect us to be right back where we should be."
If so, might Rodgers share his as-yet-unnamed hip-gyration dance with the world?
"Probably not," the quarterback says. "Some things are better left to practice."
Even if Rodgers does decide to strut on Sundays, suffice it to say that one of his receivers, reigning "Dancing With The Stars" champion Donald Driver, won't have to worry about being upstaged as the team's resident twinkle-toes anytime soon.
"Not at the present time, no," Woodson says, laughing. "[Rodgers is] a little stiff. He needs some work. But he definitely keeps it fun."
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