ENGLEWOOD – When he had the chance to bail on the Broncos 22 months ago, Champ Bailey didn’t. Now, he’s tantalizingly close to reaping the ultimate reward of his faith in his team — an organization that, at one point in the recent past, probably didn’t deserve it.
That was February 2011, weeks before that year’s offseason lockout put a stop to all contract negotiation. At that point, Bailey was due to become a free agent, and after toiling for a club that had become paralyzed by dysfunction, declining results and dismal draft hauls, Bailey had reason to wonder whether the last item on his career checklist — a Super Bowl — would ever be crossed off.
It turned out to be the first test of John Elway and John Fox in their new jobs as executive vice president and head coach. One had been a mogul of car sales. The other had been a successful recruiter in his younger days as a college football coach. They knew how to sell; they knew how to close, and Fox’s reputation as a turnaround artist, as he showed in Carolina nine years earlier, and a coach who would shore up a flagging defense around Bailey were to be major selling points. The question was whether Bailey was willing to buy in to the new Broncos.
Of course, he did.
Bailey could have declined, hit free agency and taken what was perceived to be a quicker, easier path to the Super Bowl conversation. Teams like the Patriots, Falcons, Ravens and Bears, all of which had recent near-misses and a history of big-ticket signings, looked to be potential suitors. But that pursuit never happened.
He could have been part of an elite-level contender elsewhere. But is it more gratifying to do so in Denver, where he has nine seasons of history and cemented his reputation as the best cover cornerback of his era?
“Absolutely,” Bailey said.
He’s back on the Pro Bowl roster again — his 12th appearance, the most for any defensive back. If he continues to be blessed with good health, it won’t be his last; he’s compensated for the loss of a half-step of straight-ahead speed with a more cerebral approach, fine-tuned by 14 seasons in the league. He reads receivers and developing routes quicker than he ever has — quicker than anyone in the game, it can be argued.
And no one knows the Broncos’ defense better, as Bailey demonstrated during a recent meeting.
“The other day, some of the younger guys were struggling on the board drawing up our defense. I called him up and I mean, it was meticulous,” said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. “He’s paying attention, and has been for long time. That’s one of the reasons — I’m sure, along with God-given ability — but he’s worked hard like a pro and been a great example for how to do it.”
To Bailey, it’s nothing remarkable.
“I don’t know any different,” he said. “One thing about my job: I take it serious, I don’t bring my problems from home to my job, and I don’t take my job home. I know how to separate the two, and that’s a big deal for a lot of young athletes. You can’t bring your problems to work.”
There was a time two years ago when work was the problem. Negotiations for a contract extension stalled under Josh McDaniels’ watch. The Broncos collapsed, and Bailey was unable to do much to stop it; even though he played at a Pro Bowl level — and perhaps played the best single game of his career in that stretch, holding Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe without a catch when the Chiefs wideout was at his apex, having just become just the fifth player in NFL history with 25 or more catches, 450 yards, seven touchdowns and three 100-yard games in a three-week span. Of course, the Broncos still lost that game on Dec. 5, 2010 by a 10-6 score.
Thirteen months later, when the Broncos lost in the playoffs, no one was more crestfallen after the 45-10 divisional-round beatdown in New England than Bailey. It was another fruitless year, another chance lost, a fourth playoff appearance that fell short.
Bailey’s first postseason shot came as a rookie with the Redskins, and ended in devastating fashion: a 14-13 divisional-round loss at Tampa Bay that was sealed when Dan Turk’s snap for a potential game-winning Brett Conway field-goal attempt sailed low. That, along with the Broncos’ 13-3 season in 2005 that ended with a 34-17 AFC Championship loss to Pittsburgh, represented Bailey’s best shots — until now.
“When you’ve got guys that have been around the block a few times, 10-plus years, there’s several in our locker room that can tell them, ‘These opportunities don’t come (often),’” Bailey said. “I mean, you look at Keith Brooking. Prime example. A Super Bowl his first year (with Atlanta in 1998) and not even close since.
“You see that around the league a lot. A lot of guys get close, and they don’t get back. You’ve got to take advantage of these opportunities.”
Bailey could have pursued an opportunity elsewhere. But he showed faith that the philosophical and attitudinal transfusion from Fox and Elway would create the results he desired. Twenty-two months and another ace sales pitch — on Peyton Manning, of course — later, the grass is greener in Denver than wherever he could have landed.
There’s a lesson there.
“Guys get confused about how this league works,” Bailey said. “You can’t just go out trying to chase it, because you never know when your opportunity is going to come, wherever you are or wherever you end up.
“So you’ve just got to keep playing football hard and believing in your teammates, your organization, and things will work out.”