JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Champ Bailey knows he doesn’t have much time left.
After 15 seasons that include 12 Pro Bowls, three All-Pro honors, 52 interceptions and the possibility of an eventual Hall of Fame induction, Bailey has been mostly invisible for the past 12 months. The last time fans might have seen him on the big stage was when Baltimore receiver Torrey Smith was burning Bailey for two touchdowns in the Ravens’ upset victory over the Denver Broncos in last season’s playoffs.
Since then, Bailey has had to live with the knowledge that Smith got the better of him that day while rehabbing an injured foot that limited him to five games in 2013 and left him performing like a cornerback fans had never seen before. Champ Bailey: at 35 years old, a mediocre player.
But Bailey, the former Georgia star who has single-handedly forced the outside world to learn exactly where Folkston resides on the map, addressed the media from atop a podium at Tuesday’s Media Day (where he claimed, quite seriously it seems, that the experience was “not all it’s caked up to be”) and then participated in a solo news conference aboard a docked ship on the Hudson River on Wednesday.
Bailey’s on-field contributions, with the exception of a solid performance against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC title game two weeks ago, have been irrelevant to what has become an impressive Broncos defense. But his top billing in the interview room all week shows just how important Bailey has been to the organization for the past decade.
He might not be the main reason the Broncos are here, but he certainly has waited long enough to be one of this week’s star attractions.
“Every year, I didn’t have the doubt I could get here,” said Bailey, who was sporting a pair of gray Georgia sweatpants to go with his orange-hued Broncos jersey while addressing the media Wednesday. “I always think I have a shot. That’s the only reason I still lace them up, because I want to play in games like this. This is my first opportunity. I’m just making sure that I’m ready.”
Bailey has been ready for ages. Ever since he was selected by the Washington Redskins with the No. 7 overall pick in the 1999 draft, ever since Washington traded him to the Broncos before the 2004 season, ever since Denver’s starting quarterbacks were Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton or Tim Tebow -- none of whom could get the Broncos to a Super Bowl. Ever since it took so long for his foot to heal.
And ever since Smith dominated him last year.
“It’s been tough,” Bailey said. “Dealing with injuries is always tough because it’s so unpredictable. I’m definitely not a spring chicken anymore, so I can’t just expect to be healed really fast. That’s probably the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with.”
Bailey, however, has found other ways to help.
This week, Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard remembered Bailey inviting him along to a charity event so Woodyard could experience just how important helping the community was for an NFL player. Now, Woodyard calls helping children in the community his passion.
Meanwhile, Denver receiver Eric Decker reminisced how welcoming Bailey was to him as a rookie in 2010 when Bailey gave him pointers about what the league’s cornerbacks would be focused on while Decker was running his route.
“Champ,” Decker said. “was always there for us on day one.”
On that subject, Bailey is matter of fact. He knows his experience can be helpful to a number of his teammates. Everybody on this team not named Peyton Manning or Paris Lenon is younger than him, so if he sees some way to be helpful -- even if it doesn’t involve the defensive backs -- he’s going to make his voice heard.
“You’re talking about one of the real, classy, long-standing, great players in this league,” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “His work ethic, the way he conducts himself, the way he carries himself -- I think it’s a great example for the younger players. He’s been terrific. It’s tough because he hasn’t been completely healthy for large stretches of the year, tried to come back and ended up getting nicked again, and here we are now. He’s playing his best football, and it’s a great time for him to be doing so. He’s an important piece to what we’re doing right now.”
But the most important question heading into the Super Bowl is whether Bailey will play like the cornerback Smith feasted upon last season or the one who helped hold Brady in check two weeks ago. A Super Bowl title for Denver might depend on the answer.
“I see him in practice every day,” Broncos receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said. “I see the work he puts in. Champ is still a really good player. He’s an elite player when he was the time to go out there and be consistent. If you saw him work in practice, you wouldn’t ask that question.”