A post mortem on Champ Bailey. No, he isn’t retiring, and no, he isn’t dead. The news that the Broncos are releasing him, however, does feel like an ending of sorts, and it’s high time to celebrate his career.
I remember watching my beloved Broncos about a decade ago, not long after we shipped star running back Clinton Portis off to Washington for star cornerback Champ Bailey.1 I had been aware of his talent during his college career, and I knew he had already made several Pro Bowls, but I didn’t have a feel for him. Lo and behold, it didn’t take long for him to make an impact, as he plucked an errant Trent Green pass in his first game as a Bronco. That play, along with his swagger and his reputation, caused him to instantly become my favorite player. (Admittedly, there was a gaping void in that particular category in the post-Elway and Terrell Davis years).
His signature moment for me came either that year or the next. I don’t remember the specific game or opponent, but I have a perfect image of the play in my mind. The opposing quarterback was a few yards outside the red zone, and heaved a line drive pass to a wideout deep in and far to the right side of the end zone. When the ball was released from the QB’s hand, the network switched over to the end zone camera, which in my recollection was showing about a third or more of the end zone (the “top” third on my TV screen, because the team was going from right to left at the time). No one was in the entire picture except for the intended wide receiver and the Broncos defensive back who was covering him (not Bailey). Since the play began well into Broncos’ territory, the ball could have only been in the air for a couple seconds at the most. Sure enough, Bailey somehow blazed into the picture up from the bottom of the screen, leaped in front of both the receiver and Champ’s teammate, snatched the interception, and somehow tapped both feet down in bounds despite his enormous sideline-directed momentum. I was completely stunned. It would have been impressive enough if the person actually covering the receiver had made the pick — instead, Champ covered huge swaths of ground and made the acrobatic play in just a second or two. Champ had to have been moving faster than the line drive pass was moving. Or at least it looked like he was, which really is the whole point.
Over the years, he’d have many more signature plays. Some were of the newsworthy variety. Who can forget his “longest non-scoring play in NFL history” in the divisional round playoff game against the New England Patriots in January, 2006, when he picked off a Tom Brady pass in the end zone, ran for 100+ yards, and was tackled by Ben Watson on (or “near,” depending on who you ask2) the one-yard line, which broke the game open. He scored four touchdowns in his career as well. But I will remember him more for the subtleties, such as the fact that he was an absolute top-notch tackler. This fact probably went largely unnoticed due to his relatively small size (he doesn’t feel like a spectacular tackler), as well as the fact that his tackling mastery was based on vision, timing, and angles of approach rather than brute force. Bailey made tackles the way Magic Johnson got assists — his mind and eyes were one step ahead of the opponent, and he glided into the exact right spot at the right moment every time. The receiver would haul in the pass, turn and set himself to make a dash, and Champ would perfectly time a shoulder torpedo lunge right at the man’s leg just after the man’s foot had become un-planted from the turf. He never drilled the leg in dirty fashion and he didn’t tear up ACLs. He was just a tackling surgeon. I’m probably wrong, but I swear I don’t remember Champ missing a single open field tackle in his first seven or eight years as a Bronco.
Champ’s talent was no surprise to those who watched him come up. His college career at the University of Georgia remains legendary. Not only was he a successful sprinter and (school record setting) long jumper, but he dominated the football team like the “big kid” dominates a little league game. He played wide receiver, running back, defensive back, kick returner, and punt returner, finding success at all five. He was first team All-SEC as a sophomore, and then Defensive Player of the Year, first-team All-American, and first-team All-SEC as a junior, which was his last year before going pro in 1999. He would garner his first of seven All-Pro designations in 2000, and he would end up being named to 12 Pro Bowls, a record for cornerbacks. He was named to the 2000’s All-Decade Team, and is a sure future Hall of Famer. The only wart on his resume is the lack of a Super Bowl trophy, although as a defensive player and not a quarterback, he will probably be spared of sharing Dan Marino’s legacy/curse.
It’s important to note that, despite his phenomenal ball skills, Champ did most of his work nowhere near the ball. For an impressively long time, beginning with his tenure in Washington and probably lasting through the 2011 or 2012 season, he was the epitome of a “shutdown corner.” Most teams simply allowed their No. 1 receiving option to be swallowed up by Champ, like Deion Sanders before him, and instead they’d just look elsewhere. It was not rare for him to only see one or two balls thrown his way in an entire game. This fact is what makes it so impressive that only 25 men have intercepted more passes than him in their careers (he amassed a total of 52 interceptions). His “interception percentage” must have been stellar. In the prime of his prime, in the mid-2000’s, his exploits were comical. In 2005, he picked off 10 passes and did not give up a single touchdown. In 2006, he was only “tested” 35 times in the entire season, and he only allowed four of those passes to be completed (and once again allowed no touchdowns). His positioning and awareness were as sharp as his physical skills, and put together, it was a lethal combination.
Since the news of his release broke on March 6, many of his teammates have been reminiscing about life with Champ and most of them focus on his leadership and class. He certainly fits the mold of role model. He conducted himself with a unique combination of grace and swagger that often proves, for many, to be a difficult tightrope to navigate. It truly is his locker room presence that the team will miss the most.
Bailey turns 36 this year. His last couple seasons have been badly injury-plagued. He has lost a step or two since the lightning bolt days described above. He has already completed 15 seasons, and corner backs hardly ever last that long in the NFL. Unfortunately, the most important factor is that he would have cost the Broncos $10 million toward their cap next year (with a roster bonus of $1 million next Saturday). It’s a bittersweet day for Broncos fans, especially since Champ’s only Super Bowl appearance went about as well as Crystal Pepsi. I, for one, will miss No. 24 flying around and tackling 260 pound tight ends with just his shoulders. After all, those are the same shoulders that the Broncos leaned on for a decade.
- The Broncos also got a second round pick in the trade, which would end up being Tatum Bell. Blockbuster trades like that happen so, so rarely in the NFL…
- The play was controversial because it was unclear whether Watson’s tackle caused Bailey to lose the ball out of bounds (Broncos’ ball) or out of bounds through the end zone (Patriots’ ball).