METAIRIE, La. – The Saints don’t want the NFL’s renewed emphasis on punishing unsportsmanlike behavior to squelch C.J. Gardner-Johnson’s ultra-competitive and periodically mischievous on-field persona.
They only hope the defensive back can continue to ruffle opposing receivers without drawing flags.
While an NFL officiating crew was visiting Saints training camp this week, coach Sean Payton said he “absolutely” wants Gardner-Johnson to be aware of the increased scrutiny of player behavior and to consider the cost of the fouls that result when officials don't like what they see or hear.
“He’s been at the scene of a few crimes,” Payton said, referring to Gardner-Johnson's penalty history. "So that's something we have to pay attention to.”
Now in his third season out of Florida, Gardner-Johnson has developed a reputation as both a playmaker and as a stirrer of opponents' emotions. More than one receiver has been ejected for throwing punches at him.
Johnson is a reputed trash talker, but also has been fined when the league decided his psychological gamesmanship ran afoul of its standards for sportsmanship.
He incurred a fine of more than $5,000 last season following a regular season game in which cameras caught him pulling a mouthpiece from the helmey of Chicago Bears receiver Javon Wims and later pointing his finger through openings in Wims' facemask.
While Gardner-Johnson was not penalized at the time, Wims was ejected for punching the defensive back. Gardner-Johnson was again fined last January after the Saints beat the Bears in the playoffs. In that game, receiver Anthony Miller was ejected after taking swing at Gardner-Johnson, who remained in the game.
The Saints defender was even punched by his own teammate — star receiver Michael Thomas — during a practice last season. The Saints suspended Thomas, while Gardner-Johnson remained in the lineup that week.
Gardner-Johnson smiled and responded playfully to recent questions about his penchant for unhinging receivers. But he didn't apologize.
“I don’t like people,” Gardner-Johnson said, drawing laughter from those around him. “I don’t like the other side. Let’s put it like that. When I go out there, I don’t like to start nothing. I just don’t like the other side immediately.”
Gardner-Johnson started 13 games last season, mostly as a nickel back and sometimes at safety. He had an interception, a sack, four quarterback hits, 13 pass breakups and 66 total tackles. As a rookie in 2019, his highlights included an interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery in seven games.
“My main focus is to handle my job. That’s to cover my receivers,” Gardner-Johnson said. "When the talking starts, it’s football. If you go in your shell after that, I’m still pecking at the shell. It ain’t my fault. I’m just here. I’m here from the first quarter to the fourth quarter.
“When you’re beating somebody, you’re going to let them know about it," Garnder-Johnson continued. "If I’m playing thumb war or whatever it is, I’m trying to win. ... You ain’t on board to win and be gritty and fight about it, why are you here?”
Saints defensive players, including veterans like safety Malcom Jenkins, see value in the swagger and mind games Gardner-Johnson brings to the field.
“He’s somebody that you love to have on your team. You hate him as an opponent," Jenkins explained. "He’s going to test your pride every moment.
And when he tests the pride of Saints receivers at practice, there can be benefits, Jenkins asserts.
“When you talk about trying to create an environment of competitiveness, an environment that allows you to be mentally tough, he’s one of those guys that’s going to train your discipline, how you respond to adversity,” Jenkins added. "Everybody now gives him their best because they want to shut him up.”
Saints coaches want Gardner-Johnson to keep talking — just not to the point where officials reach for their flags.
“We want him to go out there and play and be competitive. And he’s not the only person in the National Football League that talks trash,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “The biggest thing is kind of the antics. We just got to make sure that we don’t ever cross the line. And that’s for him or for any other player. That’s been something that’s been talked to him about and he knows that.”
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