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Mile High Morning: Celebrating the anniversary of the trade that brought Champ Bailey to Denver


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In their franchise history, the Broncos have been fortunate enough to make a few trades to bring future Pro Football Hall of Famers to Denver.

Denver acquired John Elway's rights in 1983, and they made a deal for Gary Zimmerman in 1993.

On this date 17 years ago, the Broncos officially completed their third when they announced the team had completed a trade for cornerback Champ Bailey. To celebrate this anniversary, let's take a closer look back at how the deal came together and how it changed the course of the franchise.

At the time, Bailey was coming off four straight Pro Bowl seasons in Washington, but they had no intention to keep him. Instead, they placed the franchise tag on him and allowed him to seek out trade partners.

But though the trade was finalized on March 4, it had been in the works for some time, as ESPN's Adam Schefter — formerly a reporter for The Denver Post — told Domonique Foxworth for a 2018 article in The Undefeated.

As Foxworth wrote, the Broncos had an agreement with Washington in place before the Pro Bowl to deal Clinton Portis, who had begun his career with two consecutive 1,500-yard seasons, for Bailey and a second-round pick. But Schefter couldn't report it at the time, he told Foxworth. Instead he penned an opinion column on Feb. 22 about why the teams should make such a trade, writing, "In this deal, both teams would make out like high school prom dates."

A few paragraphs later, Schefter finished his column with a hint that more was in store: "This could get very interesting, very soon."

Obviously, it did. Two days later, Schefter reported that the two teams had agreed upon the framework of the deal, but the two teams had to sort out contract negotiations for their new players.

Bailey arrived in Denver for a brief visit on Feb. 25. Head coach Mike Shanahan, secondary coach David Gibbs, team captain Rod Smith and former University of Georgia teammate George Foster welcomed him for a tour of the team's facilities, according to a Rocky Mountain News report. Later, he took in a Nuggets game as they hosted the Lakers. When approached for comment, Bailey played it close to the vest.

"I wouldn't say I'm set on anything," Bailey said, "but Denver, it's hard to come here and not want to be here."

Eight days later, the deal bringing the future first-ballot Hall of Famer to Denver was finalized and announced.

"It's hard to find a shutdown corner," Shanahan said during the introductory press conference. "That doesn't happen very often."

Today, it seems like the deal was a slam dunk. Offenses in the NFL were moving more toward aggressive passing attacks; just two months earlier, the Broncos had suffered a 41-10 loss to Peyton Manning and the Colts in the playoffs. Adding a player like Bailey would be a no-brainer now.

But at the time, it wasn't such a given. Portis was dominant in his first two seasons, and in that era of the NFL, giving up that caliber of running back was seen as shocking. Outside of the deal that made John Elway a Bronco, this was absolutely the biggest trade in team history.

After Bailey expressed that he wanted to be the best cornerback ever, Bernie Lincicome wrote in his column for the Rocky Mountain News that Bailey "had better be the next Deion Sanders, Darrell Green and Albert Lewis" all combined. As he saw it, there was no way Bailey would prove to be more valuable than a running back like Portis.

"The chances of Bailey making the kind of difference in a game that Portis can is the same as a garden hose discouraging a forest fire," Lincicome wrote.

Bailey, for his part, was gracious in his comments to the media.

"I can't make any promises about how this is going to turn out," Bailey said. "But I can promise one thing to the owner, the coach and to my teammates. They'll get 110 percent out of me every day. … I will do the right thing, and I won't be a disappointment."

Bailey would ensure those words came true. The 2006 league leader in interceptions leader added eight more Pro Bowl nods and three first-team and four second-team All-Pro selections, and he was named to the 2000s NFL All-Decade Team as a first-team member. Off the field, Bailey held the same standard as a two-time team nominee for Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year honors.

In every way, Bailey fulfilled the lofty expectations befitting such an enormous move.

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