Bailey played with the Broncos for 10 seasons, and he was a fan favorite from day one. Coming into the league as a first-round pick in 1999, Bailey played four years in Washington before getting traded to Denver.
Washington traded Bailey to the Broncos in exchange for running back Clinton Portis and a second-round pick in 2004. Portis was coming off back-to-back 1,500-yard seasons, but then head coach Mike Shanahan felt an upgrade in the secondary was more important.
Broncos fans were thrilled with that decision. True shutdown corners are hard to find in the NFL. The Broncos have been blessed to have a player like Bailey in the fold for the last decade.
It’s a painful side of the business, but in the end—releasing popular players is part of the game.
Let’s take a look back at Bailey’s Broncos career.
There’s a reason why many think Bailey will be a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection after his playing days are done.
In 215 career regular-season games (212 starts), Bailey has totaled 983 tackles (837 solo), 52 interceptions (464 yds.), 235 passes defensed, three sacks (26 yds.), nine forced fumble and five fumble recoveries.
His 52 interceptions represent the most among active cornerbacks, and his 204 passes defensed lead all active NFL players.
He has started in 10 of 11 career postseason games, recording 34 tackles (30 solo), two interceptions (105 yds.) and 10 passes defensed.
Bailey was no stranger to season awards. The 15-year NFL veteran was a member of the 2000s NFL All-Decade Team. During his time with the Broncos (2004-13), he became one of the most decorated players in team history.
He totaled 21 interceptions during his first three years with the club, earning first-team All-Pro honors from the Associated Press following each of those seasons. He posted a career-high 10 interceptions in 2006 when he finished as runner-up for the Associated Press’ Defensive Player of the Year.
Bailey’s 12 career Pro Bowl selections trail only Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White (13) among defensive players in NFL history. That mark is also tied for the sixth-most overall.
He was also voted the No. 46 player in NFL Network's Top 100.
Bailey is currently tied for the second-most Pro Bowl selections (8) in Broncos history in addition to being tied for fourth on the club’s all-time interceptions list (34).
He was the first back-to-back winner of the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame’s Pro Athlete of the Year Award (2005-06). Bailey was also named the Denver Athletic Club’s Athlete of the Year for 2010.
The fans won’t just miss him on the field, they’ll also miss Bailey in the community.
Bailey was a two-time recipient of Denver’s Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award (2008-09) for his work in the community. He was also honored with the Darrent Williams Good Guy Award in 2011 for his cooperation and honesty in dealing with the media.
I reached out to Broncos fans on Twitter to ask what were some of the plays that stood out to them from Bailey’s career.
Bailey made a quick impression during his time with the Broncos, and that is still remembered today.
The most popular answer was Bailey’s 99-yard interception return of Tom Brady in the 2005 playoffs.
His battles against Chad Ochocinco were also fan favorites.
O'Reilly (@SteveOReilly) March 7, 2014
@cecillammey in a preseason game he punked Chad Johnson on the line of scrimmage was awesome. Also is interception of Brady in playoffs— Jon Galvin (@nfljunky1013) March 7, 2014
Even Champ’s celebrations were remembered fondly.
@cecillammey Champ jumping up and down on the sideline during the Tebow to DT OT winning TD against Pitt was priceless.....— Shawn Cathcart (@mizzoupoke) March 7, 2014
@cecillammey Loved to see him at AFC Championship celebration, to see him finally just make it to SB was both heart warming/breaking— Space Cowboy (@SpaceCowboyLG) March 7, 2014
Even plays from recent Broncos history made an impression on the fans.
@cecillammey Last year, Jacoby Ford beat him and looked like he was gone, but Champ ran him down from behind and forced a fumble.— Justin Taylor (@justintaylor7) March 7, 2014
The Final Season
Bailey finally reached the Super Bowl in 2013. With the way the Super Bowl turned out, it has to be a bittersweet ending for his career as a Bronco.
The veteran tried to play through a Lisfranc injury that he suffered in the preseason. Recently, his agent Jack Reale told the Denver Post’s Mike Klis, “It’s unfortunate frankly that he tried to play hurt this year. Because most people with that injury would wind up on IR (injured reserve).”
Bailey had the same injury (although arguably less severe) that shut down left tackle Ryan Clady for most of the 2013 season.
Bailey then rested until the team’s Week 13 game against the Chiefs. He started to play nickel corner this year upon his return as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris locked down the outside.
He played in all three playoff games for the Broncos, totaling 11 tackles. The final images of him in a Broncos uniform won’t be kind. The Seahawks were able to get open early and often against Bailey in the Super Bowl.
On Thursday afternoon, Broncos executive vice president of football operations and general manager John Elway released a statement about the release of Champ Bailey.
This was a difficult decision for our team with everything that Champ Bailey has meant to the Denver Broncos and this community over the last 10 years. Without question, he’s among the best cornerbacks to ever play the game and one of the finest players in the history of the Broncos. You couldn’t ask for more in a player than what Champ brought to this team. His combination of elite talent, class, leadership and competitiveness made him one of the all-time greats.
Elway continued with more praise of Bailey.
“On behalf of everyone with the Broncos, I wish Champ all the best and thank him for everything he did for this franchise. Champ will always be a Bronco. We look forward to his Ring of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame election in the years ahead.”
“I consider it a privilege to have coached Champ these last three years,” Broncos head coach John Fox said. “I thank him and truly appreciate everything he did for our team. There’s no doubt he played an integral role in establishing a culture of winning here.”
Fox also had this to say about Bailey: “Aside from his natural ability, Champ set a great example with his hard work and relentless commitment to mastering his craft.”
Should Champ Bailey Retire?
So what does the future hold for Bailey? He told Lindsay Jones of USA Today, “It sucks, but at the same time, I have to move on. I can't dwell on it. I know they're not dwelling on it.”
Bailey didn’t sound he is finished playing. "I just want to see what people will want me to do. My vision is to still play corner, but I'm a little more open-minded about the season I had last year." Bailey said. "I'm a corner at heart. If a situation made sense to play safety, then I would consider it."
Adam Schefter of ESPN said on Twitter that it would be fitting if Bailey ended his pro career in Georgia.
CB Champ Bailey has no interest in retiring at this time, per source. Would make sense for Bailey to finish his career at home in Georgia.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 6, 2014
The Falcons could use a veteran like Bailey in their secondary. If he doesn’t play free safety, Bailey could still be productive as a sub-package corner.
I love Champ Bailey. During my 10 years of covering the NFL and the Broncos, there has been no other player more humble, insightful, well-spoken and refreshingly honest than Bailey.
The locker room at Dove Valley won’t feel the same without Bailey roaming around, smiling and keeping the mood light. He will certainly be missed by those in the media, his teammates, trainers and coaches in Denver.
His playing days may not be over, and there will be many Champ Bailey fans in Denver no matter where he winds up—unless it’s Oakland.
Note: All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. All contract information for individual players is from Spotrac.com. Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.