On the Wednesday before the Eagles’ divisional playoff game vs. the New York Giants, C.J. Gardner-Johnson was talking trash to Jalen Hurts and Quez Watkins at practice.
Gardner-Johnson was lined up at slot cornerback opposite the quarterback and wide receiver. His mouth had been running throughout team drills — some may say it hasn’t stopped since he first joined the team last summer — and Hurts had heard enough.
“He was talking [bleep],” third-string quarterback Ian Book said, “and Jalen signaled to a route so he could throw it on him.”
Watkins ran a fade, got behind Gardner-Johnson by a half-step, and Hurts hit him in stride, several players said. Many other defensive backs might have shut their traps after getting beat. But the Eagles, after nearly five months of living with the former New Orleans Saint, know better.
“Yeah, we got him good, but he was still yapping,” Watkins said afterward. “If he’s locking you up and he’s winning the reps and he’s talking, it’s going to [tick] you off. He made us better there. But he’s also pumping himself up, too.”
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman traded for Gardner-Johnson, first and foremost, for his prodigious ability. But every team needs a hype man. Defensive end Brandon Graham has occupied that role for years. The 25-year-old Gardner-Johnson has been a younger, brasher version in the secondary — often at his own teammates’ expense.
And he offered zero apologies for his behavior.
“I’m here to win a Super Bowl. If you can’t stand this heat, get the [bleep] out of my way,” Gardner-Johnson said to The Inquirer a day later. “That’s how I feel. That’s why I don’t do interviews. I’m going to tell you why I’m like this: Because they brought me in here to do one thing.
“Coach Nick [Sirianni] wants us to compete. I’m doing him a disservice if I’m not competing every day.”
The Eagles missed the energy Gardner-Johnson brought to the squad during his five-week absence after he suffered a lacerated kidney in late November. Mostly, they struggled to replace him at safety, especially once slot cornerback Avonte Maddox joined him on the sideline. It’s no coincidence that they produced fewer turnovers in that span.
But Gardner-Johnson returned for the season finale in a new role — splitting time between slot and safety — and he might have been the best defender on the field in the Eagles’ No. 1 seed-clinching victory.
The Giants team they faced two weeks ago wasn’t at full strength, but that doesn’t mean Gardner-Johnson took them any lighter than he will Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. He’s always looking for some edge, a doubter, a reason — real or imagined — to challenge himself.
And lighting the fuse of an opponent, or a teammate — heck, even his coach — in return helps stoke a simmering fire.
“He doesn’t just talk to the players, he talks to me sometimes, too,” Sirianni said Thursday. “I have to always tell Chauncey, listen, I’m the head football coach. Like I’m for the defense and the offense here.”
Underneath the bravado and the outward flash, though, is a sometimes misunderstood player. It didn’t take Malcolm Jenkins long to dig beneath the surface during his two years with Gardner-Johnson, and it’s why the former Eagles safety endorsed the trade when Roseman reached out.
There were a few rocky moments on and off the field in the early going, but Gardner-Johnson’s transition to a new position has been an unqualified success. Matching the NFL lead in interceptions with six, despite missing five games, was his headline accomplishment. But his overall performance should make him one of the most sought-after safeties in free agency.
The Eagles did acquire Gardner-Johnson, in a contract year, to help them win a championship. But they have the power to retain him. Asked about his unknown future, the defensive back said he’s thought about it, but he knows he’s in a better position than he was as a slot with the Saints.
“You know what I’m thinking,” Gardner-Johnson said. “To be honest with you, the pressure I put on myself right now isn’t really equivalent to what I always used to put on myself in New Orleans. This offseason, I know where I stand compared to last offseason when I didn’t.”
Depending upon the viewpoint, the Saints either forced Gardner-Johnson to want out when they wouldn’t extend him, or he forced his way when he skipped voluntary spring workouts and held a quasi sit-in during training camp.
Either way — and it’s likely there was more nuance to their impasse — New Orleans sent an All Pro-caliber talent to Philadelphia for what was essentially just a fifth-round draft pick.
Gardner-Johnson does feel vindication, he said, but not out of spite.
“It proved all the [bleep] that people was asking, but it’s deeper than what people think,” he said before taking a long pause. “Let me put it like this: I’m just glad I’m in a spot where I don’t have to question these people here. I don’t have to question anybody. I know what they expect of me.”
Gardner-Johnson didn’t know what to expect in Philly when he first arrived. Jenkins gave advice, but he initially pushed some boundaries with the defensive backs and tried to assert authority over captain Darius Slay and the other veterans.
It didn’t take long to reprogram him, however.
“We just talked to him,” cornerback James Bradberry said. “He was pretty open-minded. You have to be open-minded if you want to change your ways.”
One team source equated Gardner-Johnson’s initial conduct to that of a young student testing a teacher on the first day of class. But the Eagles also had to meet him halfway in terms of understanding his modus operandi.
The cockiness, the swagger, the constant chatter — that wasn’t difficult to accept, especially once he backed it up. In terms of scheme and technique, though, Gardner-Johnson is more of a visual learner. He said he doesn’t like to get bogged down in details. But he does need some parameters.
“If I don’t see it like that, you’re going to lose me,” he said pointing to the TV screen with the Eagles’ schedule for the day. “Because if you aren’t telling me, ‘OK, I need you there at 12:15 for lunch,’ vs. ‘Hey, lunch at noon.’ Noon can go from 11 to 2 in certain places.”
In New Orleans, Gardner-Johnson was left more to his own devices. He brought the same energy, though, at least according to Book and Eagles practice-squad center Cameron Tom, who were his teammates there.
“It was hard not to notice C.J.,” said Book, who spent last season with the Saints. “People loved him in New Orleans. I don’t think he had it bad there. But you need a few guys in the locker room like him. They bring juice every day.”
Gardner-Johnson developed a reputation around the league for instigating opponents into taking reciprocal personal-foul penalties. He never received one in return, a skill in its own right, Jenkins believed, but it overshadowed his standing as one of the best slot corners in the NFL.
The change of scenery and position offered the opportunity for him to alter outside perceptions.
“In New Orleans, I couldn’t be chill because my back was up against the wall,” Gardner-Johnson said. “Now my back isn’t up against the wall because I feel like I have a spot where people admire what I do. So it’s a blessing. That’s why I don’t have a chip about it. I just come out here and do my job.
“That’s why you don’t see too much bad rep on the field.”
Watkins suggested that the move to safety didn’t allow for more one-on-one smack talk, but Gardner-Johnson’s return to the slot seems to have resurrected some of his old moxie, at least in practice.
“Before the season and before he came I had him circled,” Watkins said, “because I know he’s one of the best slots I can go against. Just going against him now in practice, it’s exactly what I expected. I expected him to be aggressive, squatty, and he brings the energy for the defense.”
Gardner-Johnson still had to line up in the slot on occasion. Most of his pre-injury snaps were spent in the deep post. But with Maddox out with a toe injury and his replacement Josiah Scott’s struggles, defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon went to “Ceedy.”
“It didn’t take too long,” Gannon said. “The conversation, ‘Hey, Ceedy, you’re going to play nickel and safety,’ and he’s like, ‘OK, cool, let’s go.’”
Against the Giants, he lined up in the slot for 46 of 63 plays in nickel personnel, while rookie Reed Blankenship held down his safety spot. He allowed just two catches for 5 yards, but perhaps even more impressive was his tackling. He had six solo stops.
To the versatile Gardner-Johnson, it came naturally. Just like trash talking — without taking it too far.
“I can go to extreme measures without going over the edge,” Gardner-Johnson said. “If I’m talking trash with Coach Nick, I’m not going to go as far as I would in a game. In practice, if they know I’m talking, like yesterday when me and Quez went at it, it was nothing crazy.
“Yeah, I’m known for talking, but if you can get a play on me, that exposes me to be my 1 percent better than your 1 percent, so now I need to get better.”
The Eagles may not be able to afford him with six other defensive starters pending free agents and quarterback Jalen Hurts likely to receive a franchise contract extension. Wherever he lands, he’s going to get paid and have the last laugh.
“[Bleep] everybody who doubted me,” he said. “But, you know, that’s life.”
This content was originally published here.