The Champ of an Era by Jesse Schaffer

I had been prepping this post for a few days. With free agency starting, I knew that a decision on Champ Bailey was coming and that there was no way that he would be retained with his $10 million salary. Originally, I was going to discuss the avenues the Broncos could take in order to keep Champ around for a while longer and decrease the cap hit that he would have. There were ramifications for all of these options, but I was confident that the two sides could find common ground and reach a compromise. But the Broncos weren’t waiting for my opinion. They weren’t waiting for anybody, and in the end, they pulled the trigger and cut ties with one of the most accomplished players in franchise history.

For the first time in over 10 years, Champ Bailey won’t be donning the orange and blue on Sunday afternoons. I had planned on using this space to try and figure out a way that no. 24 could finish his career in Denver. Instead, I had to say goodbye to one of my all-time favorite players and a man that I have admired since I was in middle school, and that’s what makes this so hard. I wasn’t prepared for this, but here we go. After 10 years with the Broncos, Champ’s run is officially over.

When our sports heroes approach the end of the line and lose a step or two, we enter a unique version of the Five Stages of Loss and Grief. We deny that there’s anything wrong with them, get mad when other fans begin to question if they’re washed up, start trying to figure out ways in which the team could make it a bit easier on them, become depressed when we realize that it may indeed be the end and then finally we have no choice to accept it. That’s a bit of an oversimplification of what really happened, but in Champ’s case I don’t know that I could sum it up any better. How many times did you hear Bronco fans say that Champ just needed to get healthy last year and that everything would be alright?

Deep down, I have to believe that Champ figured out awhile ago that he’s not the dominant presence that he used to be. Regardless of what he said to the media, he had to know that something was off. I could tell in every game he played that this wasn’t the guy I was accustomed to watching. That didn’t mean he was about to accept the fact that he wasn’t the best corner on his own team anymore. After all, this is the NFL and these guys have a tremendous amount of pride, but the evidence for Champ’s decline was piling up. Teams weren’t afraid to look his way anymore and he was routinely picked on in the Super Bowl (there’s even a clip from that game of Champ admitting to the training staff on the sideline that he was playing too many snaps, and it’s just agonizing). I think that was the moment when he realized that things were never going to be the same for him.

Despite the fact that Champ is in the twilight of his career, his achievements on the field are only part of what made him so great. For the entirety of his tenure in Denver, Champ was the epitome of class and professionalism. He worked his ass off every season and did everything in his power to help his teammates become better. Never once did he throw anyone under the bus or bemoan over the sad truth that he was often an elite player stuck on an extremely crappy team. More importantly, Champ never got a DUI, beat up his girlfriend or violated the substance abuse policy. He went about his business in the right way and you’d be hard-pressed to find many players in the NFL who are more widely respected.

You can’t argue with the logic behind the move. Releasing Champ freed up $10 million in cap space and that makes it more realistic for the Broncos to resign Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie or go out and sign T.J. Ward and Jared Allen, or even Darrelle Revis if he’s cut by Tampa Bay (a new no. 24 in Denver?). Making this difficult decision was necessary for the Broncos so that they can restock their roster and make another run at the Super Bowl. I am a bit surprised that Champ was never even offered a pay cut, but we see this happen all the time, whether it’s Brian Dawkins in Philadelphia or Brian Urlacher in Chicago; even the iconic players rarely ever get the fairy tale ending that they crave.

When Champ does decide to call it a career, there will be a spot in the Ring of Fame waiting for him. Video footage of his near pick-six off Tom Brady in the playoffs, one of the most iconic plays in team history, will be forever immortalized and replayed for generations of NFL fans to come. He is a lock for the Hall of Fame and will be remembered as one of the greatest cornerbacks of all time. As fans, we can only hope that his successors will aspire to be as successful as he was, but in our hearts there will only ever be one Champ Bailey.

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