By Dan Pompei
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The more yesterdays you've had, the more precious your tomorrows become. Champ Bailey has had a lot of yesterdays. His tomorrows can no longer be taken for granted.
If Bailey had not learned that lesson in 14 previous NFL seasons, he learned it this year, when he missed 11 regular season games while injured. So losing in his first Super Bowl could not possibly have been more disappointing for this 35-year-old who seemed predestined to win one.
Bailey and his Broncos didn't just lose. They were bullied. And Bailey had virtually no impact in a 43-8 loss to the Seahawks. A joyless locker room and a silent plane ride home is not how dreams are supposed to end. "It's definitely the toughest loss I've had to deal with," Bailey said.
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It was spring of 1999, and Champ Bailey probably was the best cornerback prospect any set of binoculars had focused on in a decade. In fact, Redskins general manager Charley Casserly thought Bailey was the best player in the draft at any position. He oozed promise. Big, bulky rings surely would be a part of his future.
At various points in the pre-draft process, the then 6-0, 184-pound Bailey ran a 4.28 40-yard dash and a 3.79 20-yard shuttle. Georgia coaches told a tale of him high jumping 48 inches, apparently before leaving the stadium with Babe the Blue Ox. One thing jumped out at Redskins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan when he watched Bailey work out at Georgia. "He could stop and start as fast as anyone," Nolan said. "He could change directions in a heartbeat and not lose speed. That set him apart in a big way, it was very unique. There was no re-start going on."
The Redskins had the fifth pick in the draft but gladly traded it to the Saints when Mike Ditka went head over heels for Ricky Williams. Then Casserly traded again to get the seventh pick, which he used on Bailey.
Casserly's only concern was how unrefined Bailey was as a cornerback. At Georgia, Bailey had split his time between cornerback and receiver, and never really developed his techniques before leaving after his junior season. In high school, Bailey had played quarterback, tailback and free safety. He could do anything. He just never had a chance to become an expert at one thing. "His backpedal was choppy and awkward," Casserly said. "He was just raw. But he was coachable."
Bailey found the ideal coach in teammate Darrell Green, who at age 39 was 18 years older and playing in his17th NFL season. To Bailey, Green was more than a teammate and coach. He was someone he pretended to be in his childhood dreams.
At the suggestion of secondary coach Tom Hayes, Green and Bailey would meet twice during the week at 7 a.m. to watch tape together. Then, during practice when the big boys were working on the run game, Hayes had Green take Bailey to the other end of the field. "We would walk down there, just the two of us," Green said. "I had carte blanche to do whatever with him. We might work on technique. We might talk about the birds. Whatever. It was just building a relationship. And he was mature enough and humble enough to listen."
Green noted how Bailey would turn his back in bump and run coverage if the receiver had an outside release. They talked about it and Bailey worked on it. Green emphasized how important the first series of the game was in terms of getting a feel for the receiver and making a plan on how to play him from that point on. Moreover, Green taught him how to prepare. "Starting out, that was the best thing that could have happened, having a pro like him showing me the ropes, what it takes to be great," Bailey said. "He was already an accomplished player, a Hall of Famer. Who better to start your career with?"
Green was more than a future Hall of Fame player. He also was a good family man and a pillar in the community. He was a blueprint for Champ Bailey's career and life. "We talked about everything," Green said. "Our relationship crossed the lines of being a football player and being a human being."
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It was the offseason of 2000, and another future hall of famer walked into the defensive backs meeting room. Or perhaps he strutted. Now, Champ Bailey would have a different kind of mentor in Deion Sanders. They had very different personalities, but they shared an ability to do what few others in history were capable of.
"Not oftentimes would he come and ask you questions, but you could see him watching, watching the way you went about your crap," Sanders said. "There wasn't a lot to teach Champ because he had it, he had it."
Sanders said it was evident back then Bailey would be great because of his combination of ability, confidence and work ethic. He started to be great that year. He made his first of 12 Pro Bowls that year. Now, no cornerback has played in more.
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It was the end of the 2003 season, and Champ Bailey had become football's finest cover man. "At that time, he was the best in the league," said former Redskins safety Matt Bowen, now a sports columnist. "Best footwork I ever saw. Ever. In one on ones it was like he was dancing with the receiver. Step for step. He was the best athlete on the field. So smooth, so fluid with his hips. Everything was effortless for him."
But the losing and the dysfunction of the Redskins were wearing on Bailey. The Redskins went 5-11 that year and were about to fire the fourth head coach he had played for in five years. He wanted out, and the Redskins didn't seem too interested in committing to him. They put the franchise tag on him in February rather than sign him to a long-term deal.
About 1,600 miles to the west, running back Clinton Portis also was looking for greener grass after his first two seasons with the Broncos. His team's season had ended with a playoff loss to the Colts in which Peyton Manning sliced up their secondary for 377 yards. What they really needed, general manager Ted Sundquist thought, was a shutdown cornerback.
The Redskins were interested in Portis, so much so that they agreed to give the Broncos a second-round pick in addition to Bailey. The Redskins never looked better to Bailey than in his rearview mirror. "It was a learning experience," Bailey said. "I didn't know half as much as I do now about the game back then… Unfortunately they didn't want me there anymore. Here I am a Denver Bronco, probably the best thing to happen in my career."
When he came to Denver, Bailey was a fine player who approached his work quietly and kept to himself. "He didn't come in here and yippity yap like Deion Sanders, but he gave us that type of play," said Sundquist, author of Taking Your Team to the Top. "It was hard to get anything out of him. He just knew what his job was, and he did it. At that point, it was all about doing what he was responsible for, and that was it."
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It was Thanksgiving Day, 2005. Champ Bailey was playing the deep third of the field in a three deep zone against the Cowboys in Dallas. He was using "crossover run vision technique," which he perfected that year according to his defensive backs coach Bob Slowik. Cowboys tight end Dan Campbell ran a quick route to the flat, and Drew Bledsoe fired a pass off a three-step drop. "As nobody but Champ could do, he squeezed and covered the slant with proper cushion, saw the QB's delivery key with his vision technique and drove downhill to the throw," Slowik said. "He probably covered 15 to 20 yards on the delivery key and intercepted the quick throw, then made an incredible catch. He never broke stride and took it to the house. No one but Champ would make that play."
In this time period, Bailey was at the intersection of peak ability and complete understanding. He long had been the league's most perfect cornerback physically. Now he was the most perfect mentally too.
In the playoffs that season, he made perhaps the most noteworthy play of his career -- a playoff interception against Tom Brady and a 100-yard return. In the 2006 season, he routinely shut down an entire side of the field with no safety help, and he intercepted a career-high 10 passes.
Earlier in his career, Bailey primarily had been a bump and run corner. At this stage, the Broncos began using him in more off coverage. "He had such great instincts that this allowed him to use his vision and ball skills as more of an asset," former Broncos teammate John Lynch said.
As skilled at Bailey was as pass coverage, he never big-timed it when it came to playing the run. In fact, he relished the physical part of the game. Lynch said even when he played in Pro Bowls with Bailey, the cornerback was willing to mix it up in the Hawaiian breeze. Lynch thinks Bailey is one of the best tackling corners he ever saw.
Slowik takes it farther. "He is no doubt the best [overall] corner I've seen including Sanders and Green, because Champ has phenomenal coverage skill using any technique you asked him to execute, and an attitude of toughness and tackling ability second to none. He was a fearless tackler and had no issue putting his face in the fan."
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It was June of 2008, and Champ Bailey had turned 30 years old. No football player at 30 is the same athlete he was in his early 20s. The muscles don't fire quite as explosively. The joints don't bend as easily. The movements aren't as fluid. But it didn't impact performance yet with Bailey.
What was clear at this point in his career is Bailey had more than magnificent athleticism-he had control of it. "He had this natural feel for the game," said Sundquist, who left the team after the 2007 season. "He ran as fast as he had to. He almost knew when to turn the jets on in order to not overrun the point or not exert himself too much. A lot of guys had to think and then tell their bodies what to do. It was all one with him, brain and body."
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It was the Josh McDaniels era, and there were a lot of dark days for the Broncos. During a stretch between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, they lost 17 of 22 games. They needed veterans to help pilot them through the turbulence, and it was Champ Bailey who took the yoke. "During that 2010 season he was a steadying force," said Eric Studesville, who replaced McDaniels as interim head coach that November. "He was the same all the time. That provided leadership for a lot of guys. They didn't buy into the craziness. Guys looked to how he responded to things."
Nolan had been apart from Bailey for a decade, but he was reunited with him in 2009 when he came to the Broncos as defensive coordinator. He quickly noticed Bailey wasn't who he used to be. "Ten years later, he was a grown man," Nolan said. "The thing that stood out most was his maturity as a player and person."
There were other things about Bailey that had changed. Whatever was asked of him, he was confident he could do it. He could blitz more. His anticipation was keener than ever. He was making the natural progression of relying more on knowledge and less on speed. His edge had not dulled, in part because of the way he worked. He competed on every snap, never going on cruise control. He could tell you more about opponents than anyone on the team. And yet Bailey still was figuring things out.
When Brian Dawkins joined the team in 2009, Bailey realized he could work even harder. "I already knew how to practice hard," Bailey said. "But … he's older than me, and he's working harder than I am in my 11th, 12th year. So it elevated my game a little more, when he was with me. I didn't want him to outwork me."
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It was January of 2012, and the Broncos lost a home playoff game they were supposed to win against the Ravens. It was a devastating way for a 13-3 season to end. It seemed like Champ Bailey's best (and maybe last) chance at a Super Bowl had been squandered. Bailey, though, had forged a remarkable resiliency, playing football's loneliest position. He figured out long ago how to shake off getting beat for a long touchdown. And he also had figured out how to shake off a depressing end to a season. He figures he gets over these things more quickly than most, because he doesn't dwell on yesterday. "All I can do is just try to get better and give myself a better chance the next time," he said.
Through 215 games, through ten seasons with no playoffs, through 473 teammates and through eight head coaches, Bailey's faith never wavered that he would one day win a Super Bowl. He always believed there was a reason for the nickname his mother Elaine Bailey gave to him, when he was just "Roland Bailey Jr." And those ugly seasons? "None of my years were worthless," he said. "I made something out of all of them."
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It was spring of 2013, and Broncos cornerback Kayvon Webster was being picked up -- by Champ Bailey -- to watch tape. The veteran wanted to review Webster's performance in rookie camp and tell him what to focus on, before he got on the field with the full team in minicamp. Now, they watch tape together every day. "Champ has helped me prepare to face receivers," Webster said. "He tells me it's all about being patient, trusting my ability and my speed. Bailey's influence on Webster goes beyond the backpedal. "I admire the way he carries himself," the third round pick said. "Because of him I've learned to carry myself like a professional on the field and off. I love Champ. He's been a big factor in my development."
In his 15th season, Champ Bailey has become an awful lot like Darrell Green was in 1999. Bailey wants to give back after all he was given. He was taught not just by Green, Sanders and Dawkins, but by Sam Shade, Mark Carrier, Brian Mitchell, Marco Coleman and others. "These are guys you probably don't know a lot about, but these guys are great pros who showed me what it takes," Bailey said.
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It was August of 2013, and Champ Bailey's foot caught in the artificial turf at Seattle's CenturyLink Stadium. Bailey's sprained foot would keep him out of the Broncos' two remaining preseason games and their first five regular season games. "I knew it was serious because of the pain I felt, Bailey said. "But I don't think it would take that long. I'm usually a fast healer, but I know one thing, I'm not 25 anymore."
Bailey came back against the Jaguars and young buck receiver Justin Blackmon. Bailey clearly was not himself, and Blackmon had 14 catches for 190 yards. The next week against the Colts, Bailey reinjured his foot. He sat out the next four games and came back in a limited capacity against the Chiefs, on Dec. 1. But he left that game and didn't play in the next two.
A lot of players would have let frustration overwhelm them in a season like the one Bailey had. They would have mentally checked out and stopped caring, maybe even become a negative locker-room force. Bailey never did. Not only did Bailey never miss a meeting, but he wrote down everything the coaches said as if he were a desperate undrafted rookie, trying to make the team. Defensive backs coach Corey Undlin said if Bailey didn't understand something, he raised his hand and made sure not only he understood it, but everyone else did as well.
Against the Texans, in the second-to-last game of the regular season, Bailey returned as a nickel corner -- the first time he'd ever played that position in his career. He did OK, and he then played the same position the following week in the season finale. He went into the Chargers' first playoff game in the same role, but then starting cornerback Chris Harris suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Ready or not, Bailey was a starter again, this time against the Patriots and Brady in the AFC Championship game. All Bailey did was deliver his best performance of the year. Undlin was awed by Bailey's play on third-and-20, at the end of the first quarter. First, he fought off the block by slot receiver Danny Amendola. Next, he jumped over a cut block attempt by tackle Marcus Cannon. Finally, he tackled Julian Edelman, 16 yards short of the first down. "It was relentless," Undlin said.
Bailey didn't even get credit on the stat sheet for his most important play. On fourth-and-3 on the Denver 29, in the third quarter, Pot Roast Knighton sacked Brady. But the reason Brady didn't get a throw off was that Bailey jammed Edelman and had him blanketed.
"He spent many games inactive throughout the season, but he was always there," Denver coach John Fox said. "And in that defensive room, in that DB room, his guidance, his leadership was always there, and that never wavered. He stayed positive. Sometimes that can be a tricky thing, when things aren't going as planned, but he weathered it … And so it might have been one of my fonder moments in coaching, just watching him hoist that Lamar Hunt trophy there in Denver.
A photo of Bailey in a shower of confetti, holding that trophy over his head, already has a place of honor in the Broncos' locker room.
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At the conclusion of Super Bowl XLVIII, a number of Seahawks players made their way across the field to seek out Champ Bailey and show their respect. When Bailey left the locker room, his old partner in crime Lynch was there to greet him, with a hug and a word of encouragement. Bailey had a message for Lynch, too. "You should have been there," Bailey said in a quiet hallway. On his way to the interview room, Bailey was intercepted by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and then by Derrick Brooks and Andre Reed, both of whom were voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day earlier.
So many people were pulling for Bailey. Teammates wanted to win it for him. Neutral fans wanted to see justice served. The way Bailey saw it, though, this wasn't about him. He told his teammates as much in a pregame speech on Sunday morning. "It's not about any one individual," he said in front of the room. "It's about the whole team."
Soon, though, it will be about him. Bailey's contract calls for him to make $10 million next season. No one expects for him to earn that much playing for the Broncos. He acknowledged he doesn't know what team he'll be playing for, or even what position he will be playing. And he is OK with that. "Nothing lasts forever in this league," he said.
What Bailey is sure of is that his love of the game has not diminished, and that he still has the skill to play and win. When August comes, he is certain he will be sweating in the sun somewhere. And he will be competing, just like always. "I'm always fighting to make the team anyway," he said. "That's the way I look at it. Every OTA, every minicamp, I'm always preparing like I'm one of the bottom guys that's trying to make the team."
Champ Bailey believes he has not used up all his tomorrows. Even after the worst loss of his life, he still is certain there is a reason his mother gave him that name. "I'm an optimist," he said. "I'm not done playing football, so I feel like I'm going to give myself another shot next year."
See, not everyone needs to wear a ring to be called Champ.
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Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America, for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.