Bailey taking his professionalism to Saints

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
6:30
PM ET


The best way to get the best answers is to ask somebody who knows. Not somebody who just says they know, or acts like they know, but those who really know.

My dad worked for the railroad for several decades. Up early, home late, holidays, weekends, whatever, the trains always had to be on time, the boxcars always had places they needed to be.

"People need their groceries," he always used to say.

In the piles of questions I once fired his way in the years gone by because he really knew about so many things, there were always a few about if he liked his job or not, if he hated working Christmas or if he ever got yelled at by anybody.

And one of the items he left me with was, “A job isn’t everything you are or you’re gonna be, but you can tell the people who take pride in their work, right away, no matter what it is.’’

Count Champ Bailey as one of those people.

And after 10 seasons around Bailey in Denver, and a few more years around some others equally as gifted in their own ways, one of the things that is clear is a person simply cannot survive 15 years and beyond as a professional football player without some luck, a pile of talent and pride in their work.

Sure, the money can be great. And for those with some star power, the fame and fortune are life changing.

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsWith his experience, the Saints will be looking to Champ Bailey for more than just on-field production.
But when Bailey agreed to a two-year deal with the New Orleans Saints on Friday, it put his 16th season on deck. And 16 seasons for a cornerback puts you on the shortest of lists. Bailey got there because he began his career with immense talent, fluid athleticism, unshakable confidence and a willingness to study.

He has learned the game -- he routinely cites Deion Sanders and Darrell Green, two of his early teammates in Washington as important mentors -- he has adjusted to every tweak of the rulebook and every "point of emphasis" given to the league’s officiating department to take away more and more of what defensive backs could do in coverage. He's worked through injuries and through an almost annual change in his team’s defensive coordinator until he got Jack Del Rio in back-to-back seasons in his last two years in Denver.

Bailey, who has been named to the Pro Bowl 12 times, waited 15 seasons to play in his first Super Bowl to close out this past season, but the foot injury that hounded him for much of 2013 robbed him of some of what he could do to try to get the ring he covets. It was an odd scene, watching the Seahawks pick on Bailey in the Super Bowl.

There were many years when nobody threw his way, ever. So much so he said, "Some games you’re out there just doing sprints."

And while his place in his era, at his position, will be argued, Bailey has not only been one of the best ever in coverage, he has been the best tackler of the "shutdown cornerbacks" of his generation. He has played the run when others wouldn’t, so much so he once blew out his shoulder making a run-play tackle on the dirt of what was then the Florida Marlins’ infield and has worn a brace on the shoulder since.

Former Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer once called Bailey "not just a great tackler, but an elite tackler … one of the best I’ve ever seen or anybody else will ever see."

He should have been the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2006, with 10 interceptions and in his decade on the Front Range he saw the Broncos bobble three spectacular chances to win a Super Bowl in 2005, 2012 and 2013 with losses in the AFC Championship Game, the divisional round and Super Bowl XLVIII, respectively.

The Broncos made the tough call when they released Bailey right before the start of free agency. “Time to move on’’ is how the team put it.

"I can’t thank him enough for what he did for me and our organization," head coach John Fox said last week. "… I’ll miss him, we’ll miss him, it’s a business, it happens."

The Broncos never really postured that they were going to bring Bailey back in any fashion -- Bailey said they didn’t make any sort of offer for a pay cut or a change of position when they released him -- but as long as Bailey was unsigned the door was still cracked a hair in the minds of some of the team’s faithful.

The door is closed all the way now. But five years or so after Bailey retires the Broncos will put his name up in the team’s Ring of Fame and he will be in one of those first-ballot discussions for the Hall of Fame.

But first, Bailey will join the Saints, and how they use him remains to be seen. Will he line up on the outside, feeling healthier than he did this past season, or will Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan find some kind of safety-nickel corner role for him?

No matter the task at hand, there will be pride and there will be work. And everyone else in the defensive backs’ meeting room should be ready to ask a lot of questions.

Because those players likely won't ever have a chance to sit next to a player like Bailey again.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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