GREEN BAY – Before the Green Bay Packers reported for training camp, their best offensive lineman and defensive lineman conspired to start what could be a month-long battle.
It started with a picture David Bakhtiari sent through text message this offseason. The Packers left tackle had just bought a customized heavyweight championship belt. Fitting for a team with Aaron Rodgers, owner of the title-belt celebration, but Bakhtiari’s new toy wasn’t for his quarterback.
He texted the picture to Mike Daniels.
The black belt has a golden plating speckled with red gems, the words "World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion" on top and "Packers" on bottom. Bakhtiari's message to Daniels was clear: bring your intensity to training camp.
Each day, starting with Saturday’s first padded practice, the belt goes to whichever line wins more run drills.
“I was bored in my offseason,” Bakhtiari said, “so I bought a WWE heavyweight championship belt just to have a little more fun in the run-blocking stations. I know it’s fun for the fans and everyone else to watch us hit in pads, but it sucks. So this just kind of helps us take our mind off it, and add a little more competition, because the last thing we want is to be lethargic out there and have coach screaming at us and telling us to redo it again or any of that.”
The leaders of the Packers' two lines were far from lethargic Saturday.
Bakhtiari and Daniels, two of the bigger men and personalities in the Packers' locker room, traded barbs on Twitter in the past week. On Saturday, their trash talk spilled onto Ray Nitschke Field.
Daniels’ not-safe-for-work outbursts are a common soundtrack at practice. Bakhtiari, usually unable to muffle a smile, was all too happy to antagonize his defensive tackle. Between team reps, Bakhtiari often offered a quip or two while Daniels' white-hot intensity vented.
Those words might become fists eventually – if not between Bakhtiari and Daniels, then perhaps their followers on each line. In summer’s heat, it doesn’t take much for tempers to flare.
Fighting is just fine, Daniels said, so long as it stays on the field.
“You can have three brawls,” Daniels said, “and then the same guys that were fighting will come in here and eat lunch and joke about it, and that’s just how it’s supposed to be. You’re supposed to leave all the aggression and intensity on the field.”
Bakhtiari and Daniels are unnatural nemeses. As an interior defensive lineman, Daniels almost never rushes against an offensive tackle on the edge. They aren’t matched together in one-on-one rush drills.
What makes their friendly rivalry work is personality. Both have loud, carrying voices with little filter and no hesitation to use them. In Daniels’ terminology, both could be called alpha males.
Daniels said what brings them together is similar paths their careers took. Both were afterthoughts in the draft who earned big second contracts.
“We love to rib each other on social media,” Daniels said, “and talk a little bit of smack on the field, but David and I understand it. We understand each other. We’re both fourth-round picks, which means we were good enough to get drafted, but not good enough. Clearly we weren’t as good as a bunch of other guys at our position, and I think him and I have outplayed a lot of guys who got drafted ahead of us in our respective years at our position, and we both get some of that fourth-round pride.
“It’s like we’re the top of the bottom, and just something about that, there’s a certain level of grit. A team brings you in, you know, you’re a fourth-, fifth-round pick, it’s like, ‘We like him, he’ll be here for maybe a year or two. We don’t expect too much, but if he does anything good, then great. Then that was a great pick for us.’
“So he just brings a certain type of humility and mentality and attitude.”
There was no humility when discussing the belt’s rightful owner, however.
Bakhtiari, naturally, was adamant he deserved it for the offensive line’s dominance Saturday. Unprompted, without knowing Bakhtiari’s verdict, Daniels said he expected the belt because it was the defensive line that won.
That won’t go over well across the locker room.
“If Mike Daniels can win it – if – then he can walk it back (from practice) and have it in his locker,” Bakhtiari said, “but so far he’s 0-1.”
Therein lies a potential problem. Neither Bakhtiari nor Daniels could identify a single arbitrator. Without a third party to identify the belt’s rightful owner, any losing candidate should welcome protest.
But winning the belt isn’t entirely the point, even if professional athletes are conditioned to desire any prize up for grabs. As soon as he saw Bakhtiari’s text, Daniels said, he understood the belt was meant to ensure an unyielding competition over camp’s long month.
“He’s just trying to bring the best out of everybody,” Daniels said. “Dave had a lot of success last year – Pro Bowler, All-Pro. Finally getting the recognition for being one of the best left tackles in football – which he is – and one of the best offensive linemen in football, which he is.
“Now, he wants to bring everybody else along with him.”