Bailey not only best this year, maybe best ever

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The football spins through the air, a light-chocolate blur, but Champ Bailey sees it rotating like one of those classic NFL Films slow-motion shots, big as a beach ball.

The natural order of things suggests that ball, delivered by the quarterback, is intended expressly for his receiver, but the Denver Broncos' ethereal cornerback has a contrary point of view.

"I think the ball is always intended for me," Bailey says, with conviction. "They might not throw it directly to me, but if you're in my area, it's my ball.

"I am a thief."

Possession, of course, is nine-tenths of the law. And during the length and breadth of this frenzied 2006 NFL regular season, no defender had a greater sense of entitlement than Bailey. He and the New England Patriots' Asante Samuel shared the NFL lead with 10 interceptions, and in his last 30 regular-season games with the Broncos, Bailey produced a remarkable total of 18 thefts.

The Broncos' season is over after they imploded Sunday, losing to the San Francisco 49ers 26-23, but the game never would have reached overtime without Bailey. His second-quarter interception not only stopped a 49ers drive, it gave the Broncos a 13-0 lead when he took it 70 yards the other way for a touchdown. At game's end, Bailey and the Denver offense each had one touchdown.

While the San Diego Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson is the runaway choice for the NFL's Most Valuable Player award, the NFL's defensive player of the year is less obvious. The national debate has been centered around Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, who led the league with 17 sacks, and Miami defensive end Jason Taylor, who registered 13.5 sacks. The discussion turned ugly last week when Taylor insisted that Merriman's four-game suspension for testing positive for steroids should disqualify him from consideration.

With all due respect to Merriman and Taylor, consider the Champ Bailey option.

He has long been acknowledged as the best cover cornerback in the business and was voted to his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl. But some -- including two of the Broncos' most decorated and respected players -- believe Bailey was the best defensive player in the entire league this season.

At Tampa Bay, safety John Lynch played alongside two players who were named the NFL's best defensive player: linebacker Derrick Brooks and defensive tackle Warren Sapp. Witness this extraordinary statement from Lynch:

"This is probably the most impressive season I've ever seen by a football player."

Wide receiver Rod Smith has been catching passes in a Broncos uniform for a dozen seasons now. He has two Super Bowl rings and had more receptions (156) for more yards (2,402) than any other Denver receiver in those championship seasons. The quarterback, you may remember, was a Hall of Famer, a guy named Elway.

"I'm going to go out on a limb," Smith said last week as snow descended on the Broncos' practice facility. "This is real close with him and another guy. [Bailey's] the best football player, period, any position I've ever played with. John Elway is a legend. Champ is at that status.

"Honestly, the best football player I've ever played with -- or against."

Considering all the players who have played in the NFL over the last 12 years, that's quite a declaration.

Those 10 interceptions are a career high for Bailey, but there is more to his game than mere thievery. This season, he set a career high for tackles (86), a disproportionately high number for a cornerback who doesn't get beat very often. Deion Sanders, the finest cover corner of his day, showed little inclination to tackle much of anything, but Bailey likes the contact.

The funny thing? His impressive interception and tackle totals come with a sizable asterisk: he gets very, very few opportunities. Bailey says opposing teams, on average, only throw three or four balls in his direction. Bailey, who is left in man-to-man coverage about half the time, essentially eliminates about one-third of the field, which gives the Broncos' an enormous advantage.

This doesn't mean people don't test him on occasion. Cardinals rookie quarterback Matt Leinart made that mistake in Week 15.

"I was at home watching the news," Lynch said, "and Matt Leinart was talking like, 'We've got to throw it. We can't just not throw it at him.' And I just sat there and smiled. I didn't tell Champ that until after because I didn't want to screw up his mind-set, but after his first pick, I told him and he got a good chuckle out of it.

"They'll learn soon enough."

Asked Smith, "What did Matt Leinart do? He threw two balls in the area of Champ -- and they both got picked by Champ. One of them wasn't even going towards Champ, but he just ran back there and stole it."

From his own teammate.

"It was one of the unbelievable plays I've seen in my career, because I never saw the guy," Lynch explained. "I made what I thought was a pretty good move to go get the football and, all of a sudden, this flash came. I threw my arms up in the air because I didn't know who it was or where he came from."

There are times when Bailey runs a crisper route than the receiver he's covering. Maybe it's because he played some receiver in his days at Georgia and, later, the Washington Redskins.

"If the ball goes up, let's go get it," Bailey said. "I don't care if I'm on the guy or not. If I have a chance to get it, I'm a get it."

It's really that simple.

"Derrick Brooks playing middle linebacker, and Warren Sapp at the three-technique, they could be involved in every play," Lynch said. "It's easy for an offense not to throw [Bailey's] way. He maximizes his opportunities. How he continues to have an impact upon each and every game, even though they may not be coming his way, that's impressed me.

"That's why he should be the defensive player of the year. He's had a really unique and special season."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.