Ode to a Champ: Bailey an all-time great

Champ Bailey has 52 career interceptions -- including a particularly memorable pick-six in 2005 against new Saints teammate Drew Brees. AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

METAIRIE, La. -- Perhaps no play has better defined Champ Bailey's remarkable career than the interception he returned 25 yards for a touchdown while with the Denver Broncos in Week 2 of the 2005 season.

And no one recalls that play more vividly than Bailey's new teammate with the New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees.

He was Bailey's victim.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," said Brees, who was with the San Diego Chargers at the time. "We were beating 'em 14-3. It was in the third quarter. And we were running this, just a hitch outside to slot, so it was across the field. And he just read it and jumped it and picked it and took it to the house."

The play itself was vintage Bailey, whose 52 career interceptions lead all active cornerbacks.

The impact of the play was huge for both teams. Denver, on the verge of an 0-2 start, went on to a 13-3 season. San Diego missed the playoffs at 9-7.

What made the moment even more symbolic of Bailey's career was the fact that he was coming off a dislocated shoulder suffered the week before while tackling Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown (the kind of physical play Bailey also has been known for throughout his career).

"He's a stud," Brees said, still shaking his head in disgust at the memory.

"You just knew every time you were going up against that guy, 'I cannot make a mistake, because he will make me pay,'" said Brees, who said Bailey's area of the field was always considered a "no-throw zone," a term reserved for only a few elite corners.

"It was just, 'Don't even think about it. It's not worth it,'" Brees said. "And whereas a lot of good cover corners have no interest in tackling, he's the exact opposite. He'll come up and hit you. He prides himself on being a good football player, not just a good cover guy. That sets him apart from the rest.

"I can't think of anybody that's done it as long as he's done it, at as high a level as he's done it."

When Bailey, 35, signed with the Saints this spring, there was naturally a lot of conversation about how much he might have left heading into his 16th NFL season. It's a fair question, considering Bailey's last season in Denver was plagued by injuries and inconsistent production.

What should not be lost is an appreciation for just how much of a "stud" Bailey has been throughout a career that has earned him 12 trips to the Pro Bowl and will one day land him in the Hall of Fame.

"I think sometimes after a year when you're injured, it's a 'What have you done for me lately?' world," said former NFL safety John Lynch, a teammate of Bailey's in Denver who is now a broadcast analyst for Fox. "But I think people forget: In my mind, Champ is one of the greatest defensive players ever to play the game."

'A real legend'

That appreciation certainly isn't lost on Brees or Saints coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who have also fallen victim to Bailey.

It's also not lost on a room full of young Saints defensive backs, all of whom have been gushing with admiration for their new teammate. Asked about Bailey, they were practically shouting over each other.

"He's the reason I wear No. 24," Corey White said.

"He's the reason I switched to defense," A.J. Davis said.

Rod Sweeting said it's still "overwhelming and exciting" to be around Bailey, whom he ranked alongside Deion Sanders as the corners he most revered growing up.

Keenan Lewis has made similar comments, including posting a picture of himself with Bailey in April on Instagram, with the caption, "My dream was to always meet this guy and I finally did. Amen God and thankyou. A real legend Champ Bailey."

A strong argument could be made for Bailey as one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history since he has thrived in an era in which the passing game has exploded because of rules changes and more sophisticated schemes.

Bailey began his career with the Washington Redskins in 1999 before being traded to Denver for running back Clinton Portis in 2004. He thrived for both teams.

Both Lynch's and Bailey's former coach, Mike Shanahan, said in the past that Bailey was even better than Sanders because he was more of a complete player. Former Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer once insisted Bailey was the best he had seen in nearly 50 years of coaching.

"What stands out most is how he has really tailored his game to the years that have gone by," said ESPN analyst Herm Edwards, a former coach and defensive back. "When Champ came into the league 15 years ago, it was a little different. Now, it's more wide open with the formations, and he's been able to adapt to all that. It says a lot about him."

NFL analyst Matt Bowen -- a former safety who played with Bailey in Washington -- agreed that Bailey is in a select group with Charles Woodson and Darrelle Revis as the best in the modern passing era.

"In the early 2000s, he was the best cornerback, maybe the best defensive player in the league, to be honest," said Bowen, who writes for Bleacher Report, among other outlets. "I mean, there were times during practice, in one-on-ones, he just looked like he was dancing with the receiver step for step.

"I've played with a lot of good defensive backs, guys who had great reaction time, great ball skills. But Champ had everything, I mean everything. He could've played offense if he wanted to. Could've played wide receiver, slot receiver. He was just that talented. Guys like him don't come around that often."

Bailey was a two-way star in college at Georgia, and Lynch said it was "rumored" that Bailey could run the 40-yard dash in 4.2 seconds.

But Lynch was just as impressed by Bailey's physicality. One of his greatest memories of Bailey was the first time they practiced together at the Pro Bowl, and Bailey was flying in to make tackles.

"He could play bump [coverage]. He could play off. He took the ball away. He took sides of the field away," Lynch said. "He's just a complete football player."

Another of Lynch's fondest memories was a play against the Oakland Raiders on which Bailey caught up to receiver Randy Moss from across the field to tip the ball away in the end zone.

"Everybody was like, 'What just happened?'" Lynch said. "'Champ just happened.'"

Not done yet

Edwards, Lynch and Bowen all immediately brought up the same word while describing what makes Bailey great: professionalism.

They raved not only about Bailey's great character and class -- he never has been a "diva" or self-promoter -- but also his relentless work ethic and dedication to technique and recognition of opponents' tendencies.

Early in his career, Bailey was arguably the best bump-and-run corner in the game. Then, he began to shift and play more off coverage because his defensive backs coach, Bob Slowik, felt like he could see the field well enough to do even more than just shut down one top receiver.

After that, Bailey became deadlier.

He finished 2005 with eight interceptions in the regular season -- followed by a 100-yard interception return against Tom Brady in a playoff victory over the New England Patriots.

Then, in 2006, Bailey had one of the most dominant seasons ever by a defensive back. Based on varying accounts, he was targeted only 35 of 39 times in man coverage, with a total of 10 interceptions and only four completions.

ESPN scouting insider K.C. Joyner said Bailey was especially dominant against deep passes that season and said his 2006 season ranked with Revis' 2009 as the best he's seen in 11 years of breaking down tape.

"When he's on his game, Bailey can completely shut down a receiver's vertical game," Joyner said. "Even last year, he gave up only 50 yards on nine vertical pass attempts."

Bowen said the Saints' young defensive backs would be cheating themselves if they don't try to absorb as much knowledge as possible from Bailey, who said he's more than happy to fill that role.

"My first thing is to lead by example, show how hard I can work and try to lead that way," Bailey said. "I know I have a lot of experience and I'm not going to shy away from telling them things I think they need to hear and making sure I'm there for them when they have questions."

But that's not the only reason the Saints brought in Bailey.

Although they aren't counting on him to be a shut-down cornerback anymore, they still believe those unparalleled ball skills can be a big asset.

Bailey already forced one interception with a pass breakup during the first organized team activities practice session that was open to the media last week.

"I'm telling you, he looks great out here. He's got a lot of life, he's got young legs and he's fun to watch," Ryan said. "I don't know what happened [last year when Bailey struggled], but I've seen him up close and personal, intercepting balls against us when I was in Oakland [during the 2000s]. … The way he has been able to cover people over the years and still make plays on the football, that's unique.

"He'll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and we're fortunate to have him. It's awesome to add a great player like him."