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All the explanations I have heard and read about the New Orleans Saints’ trade of safety/slot cornerback Chauncey “C.J.” Gardner-Johnson to Philadelphia on Tuesday for fifth and sixth-round picks in 2023 and ’24 make sense.
-He was not good for the team’s culture.
-He was not getting along with upper management as recent negotiations for a new contract did not go well, and there was bad blood brewing with his contract ending after this season.
-He was not performing with as much sincerity in recent practices as he was before the negotiations.
-He tended to mouth off. There was a strange scene in the locker room at mini-camp last spring with him ranting and raving, and some teammates were clearly taken aback as if to say, “What is he doing?”
OK, so the trade made sense – if you’re running an insurance company office or a bank.
But this is a freakin’ football team. It’s not an advertising company.
Not everybody can be all button down, good citizens or close to it all the time. Not everybody can be Drew Brees. Not everybody can be Saintly, if you will.
The locker room does not have to be some type of Brady Bunch family getting along famously all the time.
These are not normal men who play professional sports, OK.
Every now and then, you get a few crazy, high-maintenance dudes – like Chauncey “C.J.” Gardner-Johnson. Yes, the locker room will now be quieter, and the Saints’ stronghold on good relationships throughout the organization will sail onward. But will that win another Super Bowl?
A smooth, almost peaceful locker room was a usual staple of former coach Sean Payton, who directed the Saints to four straight NFC South division titles from 2017-20, with an NFC Championship Game appearance in the 2018 season and other advances in the playoffs in 2020, 2017, 2013 and 2011 after the Super Bowl XLIV title in the 2009 season and an NFC title game appearance in the 2006 season.
New coach Dennis Allen, who was defensive coordinator in New Orleans from 2015-21 and enjoyed coaching Gardner-Johnson for the most part, replaced a “retiring” Payton after last season. And he wants to keep that locker room “culture” good and wholesome.
But you can’t get carried away too much with that philosophy. The great New York Yankees teams of the 1970s fought like divorce-bound husbands and wives in the locker room, but they still won the World Series in 1977 and ’78.
It’s healthy to not always have a roster chock full of yes men. Sometimes, organizations of all kinds need somebody from left field shaking things up a bit. There is nothing wrong with a guy or two who is just out there. Particularly, if they are really good players like Gardner-Johnson.
Remember, tight end Jeremy Shockey? He was out there, man, usually late at night. He could be a pain and a distraction in the locker room. His off-field pursuits caused headaches for the Saints’ brass.
And without him, the Saints might not have won Super Bowl XLIV. He caught a 2-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass from Brees for a 24-17 lead over Indianapolis with 5:42 to play. The Saints won 31-17. It was his second touchdown of the playoffs as he caught 48 passes for 569 yards on the season despite battling an injured knee.
C.J., though, was more of a pain for Saints’ opponents. It is a good bet that Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady smiled and pumped his fist when he heard of Gardner-Johnson’s move out of the NFC South on Tuesday.
No one has aggravated Brady more than the Saints in recent regular seasons as he is 0-for-4 against them, including a 9-0 loss in Tampa last season that embarrassed and frustrated Captain Pretty Boy so much that he slammed a computer tablet off the bench late in the game.
Brady apparently lost face in that game, because it looks like he got a new one. He finished 26-of-48 passing for 214 yards – a paltry 4.5 yards an attempt – with zero touchdowns, four sacks and an interception. It was Brady’s first shutout after 255 consecutive starts without one.
And it was Gardner-Johnson on the pick late in the game. He led the Saints that night in solo tackles with six and got in Brady’s face before, during and after plays all game long. It was something to see.
And it will be something to miss when the Saints play the Bucs twice this season and maybe another time in the playoffs.
Such sauce, soul and statistics from Gardner-Johnson will be sorely missed all season. In 12 games and 11 starts last season, he often ignited one of the NFL’s best defenses, which finished first in red zone percentage by allowing points just 43.5 percent of the time.
The Saints’ defense finished No. 4 in the NFL in points allowed per game (19.7), rushing yards allowed per game (93.5) and quarterback passer rating given up (81.7) while also finishing No. 7 in total yards allowed a game (318.2).
A fourth-round pick out of Florida in 2019, Gardner-Johnson has been a steady performer who has avoided injuries for the most part. He played in 16 games with seven starts as a rookie, making 49 tackles with 38 solo stops, eight passes defended with an interception and fumble recovery. In 2020, he started 13 of 15 games played and made 66 tackles with 52 solo stops along with 13 passes defensed, a sack and an interception.
That’s production. The heck with all this culture. How about results?
Yes, the Saints are full of talent and depth in the secondary. Veteran P.J. Williams or Bradley Roby can likely replace Gardner-Johnson well. They have similar experience and statistics. But neither has had the presence on the field as Gardner-Johnson, who tends to distract opponents into poor play.
He just has that something extra. And if Williams and Roby are so good, why weren’t they playing more than C.J. last year or having as much impact? They might both be really good this year. But we don’t know. We know C.J. likely would have been very good again if he got his game face back on.
And the Eagles are about to find out just how good he is and maybe better.
Yes, the Saints already have one of the best defenses in the NFL, so they can afford to lose a guy, many are saying. I remember hearing that after Super Bowl XLIV. The offensive line was so good, it could withstand the losses of a player here or there in the seasons that followed. And soon, the Saints’ offensive line was weak.
Sometimes, it is better to feed your strength or aggressively try to keep it that way, so it can continue to hide your weakness. The defense carried the Saints last season. Any decent offense would have helped produce a much better season than 9-8. The Saints still have a Super Bowl defense, but it may have just gotten a little weaker with the trade of Gardner-Johnson.
The Saints decided to trade him now, so they could at least get something. If they had kept him and lost him to free agency after the season, they would have received nothing. But they’re probably going to get nothing anyway. Because fifth and sixth-round picks rarely amount to much. Instead, the Saints should have tried to get one more good season out of C.J. regardless of whether he would come to terms with a new contract.
He was not performing well in practice, but the season’s not here yet. He’s a veteran. He could’ve turned it on when the season starts. NFL veterans do that often. And all that culture in the locker room could have helped him get his game back on by the time the season opens on Sept. 11 at Atlanta (FOX, 1 p.m. ET). Let the culture – if it’s so great – fix C.J., instead of ridding a talented gamer from the precious culture and hurt the winning culture.
If it became clear several games into the regular season that C.J. was not cooperating, THEN trade him. Not now. He’s too good of a player.
And he was also part of that good Saints culture as recently as July 15 when he said this on the NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football” show when asked if New Orleans would have the best defense in 2022:
“Of course, I mean from first level, second level, third level,” Gardner-Johnson said. “I mean, you got (defensive end) Cam Jordan and the front to pop it off and (defensive end) Marcus Davenport. Then you got Demario (Davis) in the middle calling all the shots. You saw what they were doing last year with (linebackers) Pete Werner, Kadenn Ellis, all those guys in the middle.”
Sounds like a team player to me.
“Then the back end, bringing in the Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) at safety,” C.J. went on like a good company man. “We are bringing in another hometown hero, won a Super Bowl, Pro Bowler. So he knows, and we know what to expect. We’re just going to go out there and dominate and take advantage of the opportunity. With all this talent, why not? Can’t waste it.”
The Saints just wasted a great fourth round pick who couldn’t miss in exchange a fifth and sixth who likely will.