|Cornerback Champ Bailey respects Philip Rivers now. That wasn't the case five years ago. (US Presswire)|
Late in 2007, the Broncos were at one of their lowest ebbs. Their streak of seven consecutive years without a losing record was about to end -- beginning a run of five straight losing seasons. They'd not only ceded the division to the Chargers, but they'd been eviscerated by a combined 64-6 margin in their two games that year.
Near the end of the second defeat, a 23-3 Christmas Eve loss at Qualcomm Stadium, Chargers QB Philip Rivers provided the everlasting image when he yelled back at then-Broncos QB Jay Cutler after the Broncos had turned the ball over on downs, with LB Matt Wilhelm waving a mock goodbye to Cutler.
Two days later, Champ Bailey struck back at Rivers.
"I don't really care for the guy, first of all," Bailey said on Dec. 26, 2007. "He's not a respectable guy right now because you talk too much trash and do this and that, but you're really not a great player in this league right now.
"You're surrounded by great players, but you're not a great player. I think he needs to understand where he stands in this league -- where he stands on his team first and foremost.
"He kind of represents the classless guy on that team. He's definitely lost my respect."
Five years later, Rivers has earned it.
"Well, the thing was back then, he was talking when he shouldn't have. I think he hadn't earned his respect around the league at that point. But now it's a different story," Bailey said Thursday. "I know what type of person he is. He's one of those guys you hate to play against, and you love to play with. I like guys like that. But when I play against them, I don't like anybody."
Bailey and Rivers played together at the last two Pro Bowls, which helped him understand more about the Chargers' quarterback. But Rivers had already earned Bailey's respect by virtue of his growing experience -- to the point where he's now started 12 games against the Broncos, winning nine.
"Mutual respect," Bailey said. "That grows when you have a guy proving himself out there every week. I don't like people who talk a lot of smack that haven't done anything. He's done a lot since then. He hasn't won the big one, but neither have I.
"It's hard in this game to earn that respect. I think people respect him now because of what he's done."
Of course, Rivers hasn't changed. He still likes to talk. But Bailey chuckles rather than chides.
"It's kind of funny to me," Bailey said. "He doesn't get under my skin. I think he still affects a lot of people. You can't really listen to him too much because he loves to talk."
And there's another reason why Bailey no longer holds Rivers' youthful exuberance against him -- the subject of his taunting, the sullen Cutler, who was traded to Chicago in 2009.
"I think he mostly hated our quarterback at the time," Bailey said, laughing.