In an NFL locker room, where there will always be far fewer nameplates than people who would like to have one, 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 to toss some dirty laundry or yet another box of shoes from a zealous sneaker-company rep, created because some inevitable roster move was made on the player with the locker next to you. No, two lockers, is awarded for service and standing.
Yet Wednesday, John Elway and John Fox looked one of those remember-when players in the eyes -- Bailey -- and told him his services were no longer needed. The end is almost never all that 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 those who make them with 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 tough decisions would be made in pursuit of a third Lombardi trophy for the nicely appointed lobby at the team’s complex. The kinds of decisions made because they were in the “best interest of the Denver Broncos."
The Broncos did not need the salary-cap space 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, smaller than the $4.5 million roster bonus he received in 2011 or the $3 million roster bonus in 2012 or even the $1.25 million roster bonus last season, did not offer any real incentive to make a move.
No, this was a football decision. One 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 what they saw this past season, what they saw in the playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens two Januarys ago, what they saw in the Super Bowl loss last month, offered reason enough. That a player who had once been one-man no-fly zone for opposing offenses, was now a target, the guy those opposing passers went on the hunt to find as they went through their progressions.
Bailey also 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 who Bailey was in football 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 with the team as he did in the first.
Former 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, unless he has a change of heart or the league’s other 31 teams force him into a change of heart, will certainly want to play next season -- he has said as much in recent days.
The Broncos should have made the Super Bowl in 2005, 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 in a place like Denver.
But life’s tapestry is full of all kinds of things, good and bad, the should’ves and the could’ves as well. Bailey has routinely shrugged those off through the years, much like touchdowns, as things that happen. That you prepare, put yourself in the best position as possible 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 total that was 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.