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Champ Bailey finds unique source of inspiration in quest for first ring

Photo: Mike Ehrmann/NFLPhotoLibrary/Getty Images

Champ Bailey is coming off a frustrating year in which injuries forced him to miss all but five regular-season games.

Hands are great. Feet are better.

It's almost cruel that he says it now, after all these years. Darrell Green still has his quips, though, and he remembers those mornings in the fall of 1999 as if they were yesterday. He remembers Redskins defensive backs coach Tom Hayes organizing his twice-weekly sessions with the team's star rookie, Champ Bailey. He remembers Bailey soaking up every word as though he had gone undrafted.

Some of his lessons, though, would be impossible for Bailey to truly understand then.

The seventh pick in the 1999 NFL draft, Bailey was immediately one of the best athletes in the league, a rookie starter who logged five interceptions in his first 13 games as a pro. Green was an aging superstar, 39 at the time. His hands weren't as great as they once were. Neither were his feet. That's just the reality of age and football and imposed mortality. Green would tell Bailey that, too, but such things just don't quite register with 21-year-olds with his speed and talent. The future is just too big, the past too brilliant.

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Bailey's hands were great. His feet were better, and there was no way to imagine a world in which they wouldn't be.

Now, Green's words are a mocking refrain. Feet are better, but Bailey's aren't. Fourteen years later, the Broncos' cornerback is finishing the toughest season of his career, one he hopes will end with his first-ever trip to the Super Bowl. It's been a season tainted by injury, by a sprain of his left foot that put him on the sideline for all but five regular-season games.

It's been a rollercoaster, and it came close to ending last Sunday, when the Broncos defense sputtered after Chris Harris -- the third-year cornerback who replaced Bailey in Denver's starting lineup -- tore his ACL. It may still end short of New Jersey, and whether it does hinges all too much on that one very foot.

"It's been frustrating because I got hurt," Bailey said. "I think dealing with injuries is the most frustrating thing. My goal right now is to do what I can to help my team win, whether that's playing 80 snaps or playing 20."

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Whether the Broncos will need Bailey for more than the 30 or so snaps he's taken each game this season remains to be seen. He could come out of the slot, where he's been relegated, to compensate for the loss of Harris, or the team might simply hope he can elevate his game in a limited role. Coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio haven't decided yet -- or if they have, they're not saying -- and Fox said Monday that the decision on Bailey's role is hardly "scientific."

Let's get back to Green, though. Bailey certainly has, even now, even after the two have fallen out of touch. He ran into his son, Jared Green, when the Broncos played the Raiders in December. Jared, who was 10 in Bailey's rookie year, is now on Oakland's practice squad. His father turned 50 three years ago and has been retired for 11. Roles have shifted, child to rookie, rookie to veteran, but to Bailey, the old advice still applies. As he learns the patience and introspection required of a 35-year-old cornerback, he's living by the example Green set all those years ago.

"I learned from one of the greatest," Bailey said. "He never moved to safety, so that's pretty much my inspiration, trying to outdo him. The game is a lot different than it was back then, but at the same time, there's still a lot of big, fast receivers out there, and I've been able to maintain and keep my speed up."

The foot will heal, and Bailey will find his step again, perhaps as this playoff run continues, but most likely in 2014. He's still in better shape than most players five years his junior, apart from that foot. It's the mental part of the game that's been giving him fits.

Talk to Green about what he did to play until age 42, and he'll mention the cursory physical feats, the intense summers of training, the stable lifestyle. That's just the prologue, though. Soon, Green is talking about tape. He's remembering Bailey following him into the film room every couple of weeks, remembering teaching the younger cornerback to do just the opposite of what most players do while they watch their games replayed and picked to pieces.

"We'd take the good things out of what we saw in the two or three games that we'd look at, and we'd just go out on the field with all of that good stuff that we saw," Green recalled. "We wouldn't take any of the bad stuff."

If there's anything Bailey needs now, it's positive reinforcement, confidence. On Dec. 1, in Kansas City, he was more dejected than he'd been all season after pulling himself from his first game in six weeks, and in the locker room afterward, he referred to playing cornerback as "a young man's game," implying, of course, that he's just the opposite.

At that point, Bailey was still trying to force himself to be something he wasn't, not then, and maybe not ever again. Elite athletes in their later years will do that; just look at Kobe Bryant. Aging gracefully in a world where 35 is over the hill is a difficult balance, and it's only in recent weeks that Bailey has embraced what it takes to do so.

"You only learn about your body from experience," he said. "I've never experienced anything like this, so I didn't know what to expect. But I think I learned how to develop a little more patience, because if you rush things, it's just not going to turn out right."

Bailey is the best cornerback of his generation, without a doubt. Green puts Bailey among himself, Deion Sanders and Mike Haynes as the best at the position in the past 40 years, and yet among the four, only Bailey is without a championship. Throughout this season, that's been the motivation to get better, to contribute, to play a part beyond that of an advisor. Fox calls the Super Bowl Bailey's "pot at the end of the rainbow," adding: "He knows the potential of our team. That's what's kept him going, and getting him back out there has helped us."

The Broncos defense has needed him all season, but never more than now. It's flirted with decent at moments, but it's never been good, much less great. Adding in its 12-time Pro Bowler was bound to produce a boost, and it has; since Bailey's latest return against Houston in Week 16, Denver's defense has been at its best. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said Monday that Bailey is "just getting his groove back," and if that's even approaching true, it's perfect timing.

Bailey has already entered the world of superlatives. Best defensive player in Broncos history has been thrown around, along with best cornerback of his generation, perhaps even of all time. The individual accolades are there, but there's one best that would cap it all so gracefully: Best team of 2013. That's what Bailey wants, for himself and even more so for his Broncos. As he talks about growing confidence and measured improvement, about knowing his foot and his limits, he can seem so rational, so proscribed. Rational ends at some point, though, for Bailey and for every other athlete.

Asked what he'd do for that ring, Bailey doesn't blink.

"Whatever it takes."

Rational is great. Determined is better.

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