- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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In an NFL locker room, where there will always be far fewer nameplates than people who would like them, there might be no higher standing, no more significant sign of respect than the double locker -- two lockers, side by side, assigned to one player.
Not just some extra room for dirty laundry, or to store another box of shoes from a zealous sneaker-company rep, or because a roster move was made on the player with the locker next to you. No, two lockers, awarded for service and standing.
Yet Denver executive vice president John Elway and coach John Fox looked one of those players in the eye -- Bailey -- and told him his services were no longer needed. The Broncos confirmed the move Thursday after league sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter on Wednesday that it was imminent. The end is almost never neat and tidy in the NFL, even if you’ve done what Bailey has done in his career.
The 35-year-old, just four weeks after his first appearance in a Super Bowl, was told he no longer fit in the Broncos plans. Not a little, not a lot, just not at all.
No doubt it was a grueling decision for the Broncos. Fox is a former defensive backs coach who has routinely lauded Bailey with all-time status at the position. And Elway, a Hall of Fame quarterback, has routinely said Bailey will have a gold jacket of his own someday.
But a Super Bowl was lost, by 35 points no less, and the march of time is merciless, no matter how much talent has been involved along the way.
Elway has always promised that tough decisions would be made in pursuit of a third Lombardi trophy for the Denver franchise. Decisions made in the “best interest of the Denver Broncos."
The Broncos did not need the salary-cap space that moving Bailey’s $10 million cap figure off the books will provide. They had no legitimate financial pressure to make the move, no immediate, pressing need to talk to Bailey about a contract reduction with the threat of his release hanging over the proceedings, not with the cap having settled in at $133 million per team.
Even Bailey’s $1 million roster bonus -- due March 15, and smaller than his $4.5 million bonus in 2011, his $3 million bonus in 2012, and his $1.25 million bonus last season -- did not offer any real incentive to make a move.
No, this was a football decision, made about one of the greatest players to wear the franchise’s uniform, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection who is headed for the team’s Ring of Fame after his 10 seasons in Denver.
The Broncos' football decision-makers, like many personnel executives in the league, simply decided that what they saw this past season, in the playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens two Januarys ago, and in the Super Bowl loss last month offered reason enough. That a player who once was a one-man no-fly zone for opposing offenses is now a target, the guy opposing QBs went on the hunt to find as they went through their progressions.
Bailey played a career-low five regular-season games this past season because of a foot injury. In a balky return to the lineup against the Chiefs in early December, he said he didn’t have confidence in his foot or his play. And Bailey without confidence was unheard of, unseen, really, before that.
Confidence was always as big a part of Bailey's football life as the air in his lungs. He respected the best players he faced, played without the constant on-field, me-first soundtrack. Former Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith once said, "Champ doesn't say anything because he doesn't have to. He knows you know you already didn't get the ball." Bailey mentored the young players around him and prepared -- even with the injury that kept him out of the lineup most of this past season -- the same way in his last season as he did in his first.
Former Denver coach Mike Shanahan, after he sent running back Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins in 2004 for Bailey and a draft pick, said Bailey would be a franchise changer for the Broncos. That Portis was good, very good, but that Bailey was great, as in forever great.
Bailey will certainly want to play next season -- he has said as much in recent days -- unless he has a change of heart or the league’s other 31 teams force him into a change of heart.
The Broncos should have made the Super Bowl in 2005, and he should have been the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2006. The Broncos should have played far better in last month’s Super Bowl, and there should be some other way for a run like Bailey’s to end.
But life’s tapestry is full of all kinds of things, good and bad. Bailey has routinely shrugged off the bad, much like opponents' touchdowns, as things that happen. His position? You prepare, put yourself in the best position and hope for the best.
Even with the pile of Pro Bowls and a decade largely filled with on-field excellence, Bailey has always been a pragmatist when it came to how things worked in the league. He had seen too many players come and go, played for too many defensive coordinators -- a double-digit total, with seven in Denver alone -- to believe anything was forever for anybody.
Even during this past season, Bailey offered this on a Friday afternoon: “When they’re done with you, they’re going to be done with you; when it’s time to move on, it’s time to move on. For them and for you. That’s how it is in this league. It’s business when you come in to a team, it’s business when you go. You just try to make the part in between go as long as you can and be as good as it can be."
Bailey did that, did all of that.
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