"It was a great play by me."
These words were uttered by Champ Bailey after a 2006 playoff game against the New England Patriots, one in which he intercepted quarterback Tom Brady and nearly returned it for a touchdown. Bailey's marvelous, iconic play powered the Denver Broncos to a 27-13 win.
In the process, he etched his name in Broncos lore forever.
Even without that play, Bailey would be remembered as one of the team's best players ever. He is loved by Broncos fans for his exceptional play, and he is well-known as one of the league's all-time greats.
Still, nothing lasts forever. Bailey is at the tail end of his career, as he is 35 years old. He is still a great leader and a decent player, but he is nothing compared to the Bailey who locked down top receivers consistently in his prime.
Instead, he is a slower player who can't shut down great receivers anymore. Pro Football Focus noted that he missed three tackles against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 6, matching his total from the entirety of the 2012 season. In Week 7, he gave up a touchdown and displayed poor judgment before leaving with a foot injury.
Bailey has eight tackles and three passes defensed, but those numbers are deceiving. He has always been known as a good tackler and run defender, but he clearly wasn't as solid in that area in Week 6. Pro Football Focus gave him a minus-1.2 game grade.
His Lisfranc injury, which will not completely subside this season, affected him. Regardless, his lousy performance was inexcusable. Bailey's inability to make an impact has plagued Denver's defense, and it will continue to if he doesn't pick it up.
And unfortunately for the Broncos, he might not be able to pick it up anymore.
The wear and tear of playing in the NFL for 15 years (including this year) clearly cannot be ignored, and it's why Bailey isn't dominant anymore. Athletic, talented receivers can blow by him and make plays over him, which Baltimore's Torrey Smith did in the playoffs last season.
Smith picked up 98 receiving yards and two touchdowns, blowing by Bailey on multiple occasions (quarterback Joe Flacco missed or overthrew him sometimes) and making plays over the 12-time Pro Bowler.
It was embarrassing for Bailey, and it showed his vulnerability. Ever since that game, there has been legitimate concern about him. His leadership is pivotal, but his on-field production hasn't helped the team at all.
He won't return to full strength this year, which will just make the aging corner even worse. He likely won't be matched up with top receivers, as if he were, it would minimize the impact of the pass rush and devastate the defense.
In other words, Bailey just isn't able to make a positive impact anymore.
However, unfortunately for the Broncos, he's being paid like someone who is. According to Spotrac, Bailey is accounting for $10.75 million against the team's 2013 cap hit and $10 million against the team's 2014 cap hit.
Has he done great things for the franchise? Yes. Is he being overpaid? Yes.
If the Broncos were to release him, they would free up ample cap space. Denver needs to address some holes on defense, and it needs to re-sign players like Wesley Woodyard, Eric Decker and Zane Beadles.
Re-upping the contracts of these young prodigies is critical, and so is cutting ties with Bailey. His leadership will help Denver this season, but he simply costs too much to keep next season. Besides, Denver has a budding star in rookie corner Kayvon Webster, and it can sign or draft a cornerback next offseason at a reasonable price.
The franchise has benefited from Bailey's stardom, but he isn't the same player. His body is breaking down, and he simply isn't able to handle the grind of covering star receivers. Denver needs to win a championship now, and it can't do that easily with Bailey's lucrative contract.
In other words, Bailey needs to be cut after this season.