DENVER — Champ Bailey spent a decade with the Denver Broncos, making eight Pro Bowls and picking off 34 passes even with quarterbacks only reluctantly glancing his way.
This number was hard to overlook: $10 million.
In a cost-cutting move Thursday, the Broncos released Bailey, the team’s defensive leader who’s been a fan favorite since he was acquired in a trade with Washington in 2004.
There’s simply no room for loyalty in the NFL, especially with free agency about to start and with holes needing to be filled, something that became apparent to the Broncos after a 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl last month.
Broncos boss John Elway called the decision to release Bailey a “difficult” one given all that the perennial Pro Bowl cornerback has brought to the team over his 10 seasons in the Mile High City.
“Without question, he’s among the best cornerbacks to ever play the game and one of the finest players in the history of the Broncos,” Elway said in a statement. “You couldn’t ask for more in a player than what Champ brought to this team. His combination of elite talent, class, leadership and competitiveness made him one of the all-time greats.”
But age and injuries had begun to catch up with one of the best shutdown cornerbacks to play the game. Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowler overall, is scheduled to make around $10 million next season, which is a lot of money for a cornerback who may be asked to switch to safety or possibly inside to the slot position.
This was a hard season for the 35-year-old Bailey as he missed 11 games because of a nagging left foot sprain originally suffered in the preseason on Aug. 17 in Seattle. Only later did Bailey reveal he sustained a Lisfranc injury.
He returned late in the season to help the Broncos advance to the Super Bowl, but wasn’t back to his old form — the form that had QBs scanning everywhere but his direction.
In his prime, Bailey wasn’t always very busy because opponents simply picked on his counterpart.
And yet he still has 52 career interceptions, the most among active cornerbacks.
“I consider it a privilege to have coached Champ these last three years,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “There’s no doubt he played an integral role in establishing a culture of winning here.
“Aside from his natural ability, Champ set a great example with his hard work and relentless commitment to mastering his craft.”
The 15-year veteran mentored many teammates, teaching them the tricks of the cornerback trade. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, an impending free agent, once said he used to study film of Bailey simply because, “If you’re a cornerback, you have to be a fan of Champ Bailey. Anytime a guy does that for a period of time he did it, 14 or 15 years, you’ve got to watch him.”
Rodgers-Cromartie and Bailey were supposed to be a lockdown tandem in 2013.
Until Bailey got hurt.
So in stepped Chris Harris Jr., an undrafted player out of Kansas who soaked up all of Bailey’s suggestions as he waited his turn. Once he got on the field, Harris became almost a copy of Bailey — or as much as anyone can be. Harris blew out a knee against San Diego in the divisional round, leading to Bailey’s return to his usual spot at left corner.
On his Twitter account, Harris thanked Bailey for his help, saying he was blessed to be able to “lineup opposite Champ and learn from a Great.”
Harris wasn’t alone in his praise, with linebacker Danny Trevathan posting on Twitter: “Champ. You taught me a lot!”
Although quarterbacks didn’t always pick on him, Bailey still found a way to get involved. He prided himself on his tackling and frequently crept up to the line of scrimmage to help out. In 215 regular-season games, Bailey has 983 tackles, three sacks, nine forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries.
His best statistical season was 2006, when he had a career-high 10 interceptions and finished as runner-up for The Associated Press’ Defensive Player of the Year.
About the only thing that eluded Bailey in his time with Denver was that Super Bowl ring. But Elway said there is a “ring” in Bailey’s future because Elway said he’s going to have a place in the team’s Ring of Fame once his career is finished.
Maybe down the road there will be a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, too, which would make him the first Denver defensive player to be enshrined.
“On behalf of everyone with the Broncos, I wish Champ all the best and thank him for everything he did for this franchise,” Elway said. “Champ will always be a Bronco.”