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C.J. Gardner-Johnson returns with new mindset, apology to fans

C.J. Gardner-Johnson whistled as he strolled his way to the front of the NovaCare Complex auditorium on Friday afternoon.

You could almost feel his energy.

“Guess who’s back … back again,” the enigmatic safety began to sing as he then got in front of the microphone and sat down. “Shady’s back …”

As he was welcomed back, Gardner-Johnson flashed a smile and a thumbs up and his re-introductory press conference was underway.

How does it feel to be back?

“Like I never left,” he said. “I feel great.”

Not only is Gardner-Johnson back after a year away but he’s back with the Eagles on a new three-year deal that’s reportedly worth up to $33 million. And he’s back with some added perspective and maturity too.

The truth is, Gardner-Johnson never really wanted to leave. But after the 2022 season ended, there was some drama and hurt feelings between his camp and the Eagles and he ended up in Detroit on a one-year deal.

And a lot changed in a year to get him back where he belongs.

“Take your feelings out of it and just willing to be a man about certain things and accept certain things as a man,” Gardner-Johnson said. “I think right now coming back was … a relief. Because I’m familiar with the people here, with the place and I’m comfortable, if that makes sense. The difference from last year to this year is we both saw eye-to-eye.”

While Gardner-Johnson was locked in with his new team last season, he didn’t hide the fact on Friday that he always wanted to be in Philly. It’s not like Gardner-Johnson waited until the start of free agency on Monday to contemplate what it would be like to return to Philadelphia.

“I been thinking about it,” he said. “You just gotta let the time handle it. You can’t handle it yourself.”

On Tuesday night, not long after the news broke that Gardner-Johnson was returning to Philly, the 26-year-old safety posted an official apology to Eagles fans on social media. Although, based on the responses, there were definitely no hard feelings. Heck, many fans seemed to agree with Gardner-Johnson’s calling them obnoxious.

So during his Friday press conference, Gardner-Johnson was asked why he felt compelled to issue that apology.

“I’m obnoxious. I thought it was a compliment to be obnoxious to be honest with you,” Gardner-Johnson said with a smile. “All jokes aside, I was just in my feelings. You want to be somewhere so bad, to the point where you can’t control certain things. So certain things was said but there was no meaning to it. I’m back. So I guess we all happy. Family reunion, huh?”

While Gardner-Johnson suffered a pectoral injury early during the 2023 season with the Lions, he did return for the playoffs and got to play in the NFC Championship Game for the second straight year. But going that far into the playoffs in back-to-back seasons without a Super Bowl ring has fueled him even more.

And Gardner-Johnson said that his season in Detroit taught him a lot and helped him mature. It made him realize that every member of a championship-caliber team is important and admitted he “didn’t really grasp” that during his first stint in Philly.

That wasn’t all he learned in Detroit either. Missing a big chunk of the season with that pec injury taught him a lot too.

“I learned myself,” Gardner-Johnson said. “I figured out ball isn’t always about you. It’s about 50 other guys out there, the front office. So getting hurt and taking a step back and not being the focal point made me realize I’m going to be a part of something greater and better than where I’m at. I want to be able to take that next step and I think I made the right decision.”

The Eagles initially acquired Gardner-Johnson in a trade just before the 2022 season began. During his three years with the Saints, Gardner-Johnson was primarily a nickel cornerback but he came to Philly to be a safety.

While his position versatility is clearly viewed by the Eagles as a positive, there’s no doubt that Gardner-Johnson sees himself as a safety. And he explained that in his own unique way on Friday.

“I think it’s my time to be cocky. It’s my time to be cocky?” he said, panning to a nearby member of the Eagles’ public relations staff. “I’m still one of the best young safeties in the league. So I ain’t worry about, you know, I’m ready to keep it going.”

The Eagles missed Gardner-Johnson’s play-making ability during the 2023 season. After all, he had 6 interceptions in 12 games during his first season with the Eagles and the entire team had 9 interceptions in 17 games without him last year.

But aside from that, the Eagles also missed Gardner-Johnson’s brash personality, his cockiness, his energy. Even with his added maturity, he doesn’t plan on losing his edge.

“I’m ready to turn the lights back on in the building again, if that makes sense,” Gardner-Johnson said.

Yeah, it does.

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