|Broncos fans are ready to see what old pros like Champ Bailey and Peyton Manning can do. (AP)|
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Maybe the most physically gifted athlete in NFL history sits humbly, smiling. There are no proclamations of greatness. He doesn't need them. No cockiness, no smart ass-ness. Not his style. Just Champ Bailey talking football.
Or, more to the point, longevity. The fact that Bailey has played the corner position, still covering the opposition's best receiver, week in and week out, remains one of the most incredible stories football has ever seen. It's difficult to quantify but Bailey joins an elite and small group that covered the best receiving weapons, one-on-one, well into his 30s, and at a Pro Bowl level.
One was Washington's Darrell Green, who played into his late 30s and until the day he retired covered the best receiving option. There are a few others, like Willie Brown, but what Bailey is doing might surpass even those Hall of Famers. As Bailey has aged, the speed of the game has changed dramatically. He's covering faster receivers than Green or Brown ever did, but still staying with them, stride for stride.
Bailey is also dealing with rules changes that cause a defensive back to be flagged if a pinky grazes a shoulder pad. The football world Bailey still dominates is more complex than the ones his aged and skilled predecessors played in.
"I remember five years ago people told me since I was getting to my 30s that I'd be retiring soon," the 34-year-old Bailey said in an interview. "Well, here I am."
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Here he is, indeed. While Peyton Manning may be the story of the Denver Broncos, it is Bailey, again, who is the non-aging centerpiece. Receivers have come and gone. Corners have come and gone. So have NFL commissioners, presidents, space stations and sitcoms. The Earth has warmed, oceans have risen, dynasties have fallen ... all during Bailey's career, which started in 1999.
Bailey has stayed indestructible while still possessing incredible speed. He denied what a teammate told me, that Bailey plans to play two more years and then retire.
"I'm planning year to year," he said. "Right now I feel too good to think about retiring."
Maybe the best way to describe what Bailey has done is let another eternal do it for him.
"I played against Champ three years in college, and so I remember him as a true freshman at Georgia," Manning said. "I remember how talented he was, and you just knew he was going to be a good player. I played against him my second year in Indy when he was with the Redskins, so I was telling somebody that the other day -- they're like, 'Champ played for the Redskins, and you played against him?' It's just like forever ago, I guess. But I think it's pretty well documented that every time I've played against him, you always get asked about Champ, and he's the best corner I've played against in my career, and he's been unbelievably consistent.
"I've played the Broncos a number of times, and he always shows up, he's always ready to go. He presents an intense matchup problem. Champ has never intercepted me in the NFL, but I don't think I've ever thrown a touchdown on him either, so it's a pretty good battle. He got me in college one time on an interception, so I'm glad we're on the same team. [The Colts] always had healthy respect for Champ. We never threw away from a certain guy because we felt like we loved our receivers. With Marvin [Harrison] and Reggie [Wayne], we're going to throw to those guys, but you always knew where Champ was. If you couldn't set your feet into it, it wasn't worth throwing. If you threw behind him, he was going to make you pay. ..."
And here he is ... again.
• Protect Manning. The main objective. The most necessary. The most obvious. What I'm told by some on the Broncos is this: They're not worried necessarily about that one huge hit on Manning somehow destabilizing his intricate and various neck surgeries. They are worried about repeated, smaller hits. Hell, the Broncos might max protect every play for the first part of the season. That's an exaggeration but you get the point. The team will do everything it can to keep Manning in one piece.
• Kill the legend of Tim Tebow. I've heard this from several players. It's not said with animosity or jealousy but there is a segment of the team, not a small one, that felt Tebow was all about Tebow and both he and the media forgot that other segments of the team (emphasis on team) helped push the Broncos to the playoffs. The players who say this aren't naïve. They know that if the Broncos win, Manning will get the credit. But to them, Manning is a Hall of Famer who can actually, well, throw the ball. And has a track record of greatness.
• Let Jack Del Rio do his thing. As a coach in Jacksonville, he had his faults, but overall Del Rio is smart and a solid defensive mind. Del Rio and coach John Fox will make a formidable duo on the defensive side of the ball. Plus, Del Rio has more weapons to work with in Denver than he did in Jacksonville.
Backup quarterback: The biggest of the battles. Caleb Hanie and Adam Weber are fighting to back up Manning. Normally, before Manning's surgeries, the backup had a doctorate in clipboard holding. Now it's different. Hanie will likely win the battle.
Somebody to Watch
Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. Quite simply, a freaking beast. Manning will use Thomas as his Broncos version of Marvin Harrison (but not Eric Decker, who is also quite good). "Demaryius is a guy that we are going to feature," Manning said. "His size and strength and speed just [allow] you to do certain things with him that other players just can't do." Thomas is part of a Broncos receiving group that could be formidable because it's fast and Manning is so accurate with his throws.
• RB Mario Fannin tore his Achilles tendon in the Broncos' first scrimmage.
The Final Word
The conventional thinking about the Broncos goes like this: If they made the playoffs last year with a quarterback who can't throw in a straight line, imagine what they'll do with Manning. There is a great deal of truth to this. Who knows how many wins a healthy Manning can generate, but it's not an insignificant number. One NFL scout believes Manning, alone, is worth nine victories to the Broncos. Could be right. If Manning stays upright (a significant if) that conventional wisdom could easily come true.