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A True Champ

Posted Mar 6, 2014

For a decade in Denver, Champ Bailey set the tone for the entire Broncos defense. It makes saying goodbye that much harder.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It was a decade ago this week that Champ Bailey stood at the lectern in the Broncos' team meeting room and conveyed his intentions for his new job with a new team.

"I can promise one thing to the owner, the coach and my teammates -- that they'll get 110 percent out of me every day," Bailey said. "I will be a class guy, I will do the right thing, and I won't be a disappointment, I can guarantee that."

It was a promise that he kept and exceeded, through tumultuous seasons, organizational changes, the club's gradual five-year descent to the AFC's cellar and its subsequent rise back to the NFL's elite.

Sometimes, Bailey was a primary reason why the defense flourished. Others, he was the only component separating it from total collapse. At all moments, he made the Broncos' defense better than it would have been without him.

Never was that more the case during the mid-2000s. In his exemplary 2005 season, he intercepted eight passes and returned two for touchdowns, both of which proved vital in games won on the last snap. In a 2006 campaign that was even better, he had more interceptions (10) than completions allowed (four).

It was arguably the best cover cornerback in recent NFL history, performing at his apex. Teams threw away from him often in the years that followed, so he couldn't match those statistical standards. But he settled into his lock-down role, and had one Pro Bowl season after another -- and eventually more than any cornerback in NFL history.

"We haven't had a corner come close to him in a long time," Broncos Owner and CEO Pat Bowlen said on the day Bailey was introduced to Denver in 2004.

Bowlen was right. The Broncos got the best of Bailey, and it was extraordinary. His enshrinement in the Ring of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame is assured. Like John Elway and Shannon Sharpe, he's not only the best to have played his position in Denver, but in the conversation for the best anywhere at his spot.

That's why saying goodbye is so excruciating. Bailey set a high standard, and exceeded it. He stuck with the team at its lowest point in four decades. In a previous era, before the salary cap, this conversation likely wouldn't be taking place, and Bailey would remain a Bronco until the end of his career.

The reality of the situation dictates otherwise. As other players with Canton credentials like Larry Allen, Brian Dawkins, John Lynch, Warren Moon, Shannon Sharpe, Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson learned, there's no amount of career excellence that helps a player avoid the realities of roster construction in the salary-cap era.

And one of those realities is that a player's potential value is evaluated not just on skill and leadership, but by cold calculus that is football's version of an actuarial table.

Bailey turns 36 this year. He's coming off a season in which he missed 11 games to a sprained foot that was aggravated during one of his returns to action. He has missed 14 games in the past three seasons and 22 in the last six.

He has played 15 seasons. The number of cornerbacks who were full-time starters in their 16th year or later can be counted on one hand: Washington's Pat Fischer (1976) and Darrell Green (1998), Oakland's Albert Lewis (1998) and San Francisco's Jimmy Johnson (1976). None of them made the Pro Bowl. There's a proper price for a veteran cornerback like that, but it's not an eight-figure salary for one season.

Those facts don't make parting any easier, and it will be jarring to see someone else standing at the corner locker-room stall that was Bailey's perch for the last decade. But that's the reality of the NFL, which has long been dubbed "Not For Long."

But the acronym can be accurately rearranged into NLF: "Nothing Lasts Forever." Not even the prime of the league's best cornerback of the 21st century. Bailey didn't merely keep his promise, but exceeded it, and through his skill, poise and on-field demeanor showed how a premium position should be played.