KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The whistle blew, the ref gave the signal — first down, Packers! — and the hopping and yelling started.
This was Sunday night, late in the third quarter of the Packers’ 31-24 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, and defensive end Tyler Lancaster’s forced fumble and recovery meant it was time for the NFL’s most fun-loving team to break out the NFL’s most over-the-top celebration.
“The D-Train,” edge rusher Preston Smith later told Yahoo Sports with a huge grin. “That’s our signature celebration.”
So the moment Lancaster rose to his feet with the football, defensive end Za’Darius Smith started jogging to the end zone to find the cameras. Darnell Savage followed, along with Jaire Alexander, Preston Smith, Lancaster himself, Dean Lowry and, well, the whole damn defense.
At least 20 Packers in all — all defensive players, including several who ran in from the sideline — eventually gathered in the end zone as they chanted, and pumped their fists in congregation, all simulating a train. Hence the name.
The team picture pose is old hat at this point. Just about every NFL team does it. But the large number of Packers involved in the photo was striking, an indication of how much they’re rooting for each other and how much fun they’re having while doing it.
“It’s about the team — we grind together, so we celebrate together, that’s what it’s all about,” cornerback Kevin King told Yahoo Sports. “Everybody wants to be a part of those memories because those memories are the types of things that you — when football is done — look back on and think back on.”
And when you’re winning like the Packers (7-1) are, why wouldn’t you want to be a part of moments like this? After last season’s 6-9-1 nightmare, this is turning into a special season in Green Bay, ranging from Aaron Rodgers’ ridiculous touchdown passes, to Matt LaFleur’s burgeoning Coach of the Year candidacy to yes, the assortment of pre-planned celebrations by a fun-loving defense filled with players who are close to each other.
“Bro, we got a young group — we got a bunch of guys who love coming to work and doing what they do,” Za’Darius Smith told Yahoo Sports. “We have fun, but at the same time, when it’s time to work, we go to work. It’s a brotherhood, man. It’s more than just football, bro. It’s getting outside of football, outside of work. Like on ‘Monday Night Football,’ we all get together and go to each other’s houses. Have pizza and wings.”
All of them, he noted. That is why it’s easy for them to get so excited and celebrate profusely when a fellow defensive player makes a play, which LaFleur is OK with.
“When we first got to OTAs, [Coach LaFleur] told us he likes player-led teams,” Preston Smith told Yahoo Sports. “He said he would give us some freedom to lead the team and handle things and be ourselves because he knows creating an environment like that will create success.”
So if guys want to have celebrations as a team ...
“He allows us to have celebrations as a team,” Preston Smith said. “He doesn’t stop us from having fun.”
Players say this is part of their identity now, part of their ethos, one vastly different than the corporate, buttoned-up Packers teams of the past under previous coach Mike McCarthy.
“I’ve been in the league 14 years now, and I’m experiencing something new right now,” said safety Tramon Williams, who has spent all but three years of his NFL career in Green Bay. “Being around all these young guys man, [I’m the] old guy in the room. I feel good though. Those guys make me feel good.”
And make no mistake about it, while Preston says the D-Train celebration was the brainchild of high-energy second-year cornerback Jaire Alexander — who is emerging as one of the best young corners in football — the Smiths are at the forefront of this switch as teammates say both players, who were high-dollar free-agent acquisitions by the normally free agency-averse Packers, have brought lots of juice to the team.
“One of the things that gets misconstrued in this game is that it’s supposed to be fun — that’s the point of it,” Williams told Yahoo Sports. “[Despite] the politics of the game, whatever else is going on in the game, those guys don’t lose [that fun]. It keeps reminding us of why we began to play this game at the age of 5 — it’s all about fun, and those guys are keeping that instilled in us, and we’re having fun doing it.”
Nowhere is this more evident than when one of the Smiths rack up a sack, which has been routine this season. Whenever Preston Smith takes down the QB — he is tied for seventh in the league in sacks — he breaks out a celebration where he stands, slams his hands on the turf, spreads out his arms and yells.
“That’s me going apes--- — that’s my celebration,” said Smith, who came up with it after his rookie year with the Redskins with the urging of a veteran mentor, Ricky Jean-Francois. “I got a full-sized mirror in my room, so I was trying celebrations in the mirror and I came up with one I liked. I stuck with it and people like it.”
Smith, like many of his teammates, agrees that Za’Darius Smith — who has a team-leading eight sacks this year, tied for fourth in the league — is having the most fun. He has at least three sack celebrations, and he revels in breaking out something new to entertain his teammates.
“I got a bunch of different ones, man, and I’mma keep coming each and every week with ‘em,” Za’Darius told Yahoo Sports. “That even keeps me motivated, you know, to go out there and make a big play for the team.”
And it motivates his teammates, as well, it appears.
“It’s a long season, and they’re gonna get a lot of sacks,” King said. “S---, we gotta pick it up on the backend. We gotta start doing our celebrations, too. Because we’ve got a little somethin’-somethin’.”
It is, perhaps, the best indication that the young, hungry and fun-loving Packers aren’t done celebrating yet, and won’t be for a while.
“You’ve got a team that’s young and full of energy and we’re gonna keep chopping the wood each and every week,” Za’Darius Smith began in the locker room after Sunday’s game, before a nearby teammate let out a loud, screeching “choo-choo” sound that caused him to grin.
“What we doing?” Smith responded. “It ain’t a train it’s a …”
“DEEEEEEEEEEE-TRAAAIN,” the teammate yelled.
“There you go, man,” Smith said with a laugh, before walking away. “There you go.”
More from Yahoo Sports: