METAIRIE, La. -- He wears the number because it was the only choice that remained. He’d always been No. 24 -- when he made his first Pro Bowl after the 2000 season, when he was traded from Washington to Denver in '04, when he pulled in 10 interceptions in '06. He wore 24 when his left foot nagged all last season, when he reached -- and lost -- his first Super Bowl last winter.
But when Champ Bailey hung up his Broncos jersey after his team of 10 seasons cut him in March, that marked the end of his time wearing No. 24. Except he didn't know it at the time. When he signed with the Saints the next month, the 36-year-old approached a young cornerback, Corey White, about his number. Bailey doesn’t believe in paying, though, and White wouldn’t budge.
So Bailey adopted No. 27. It had been the number of his former teammate, Darrent Williams, who was killed in a drive-by shooting, but Bailey isn’t getting sentimental. Really, it was all that was left, and so the future Hall of Famer made it his. It may be awkward, and it may be uncomfortable, but Bailey is the new guy and the old man all at once. Just don’t let White’s gesture -- or lack thereof -- mislead you: The young Saints secondary knows what it has in Bailey and its other veteran acquisition, safety Jairus Byrd.
Bailey brings the most illustrious career to New Orleans, but Byrd brings the most promise for All-Pro caliber play. The team’s biggest free-agent acquisition last spring, Byrd, 27, has already played in three Pro Bowls. After playing out his rookie deal in Buffalo, Byrd saw what the Saints were building on defense, and the promise of a Super Bowl in New Orleans enticed him to move south.
"The ingredients were a great front line," Byrd explained. "The front seven’s really good, and obviously the secondary’s good. Then mix that with what coach Rob Ryan has going on here. You get all those ingredients as well as a great offense, and it’s like, man, come on now. You couldn’t ask for more."
In 2012, the Saints defense under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was atrocious. It allowed more yards than any team in NFL history, and the team missed the playoffs for the first time in four years. A year later, Ryan had replaced Spagnuolo, and the Saints finished the season allowing the fourth-fewest yards of any team.
Even so, that wasn’t enough. Among the secondary, only Keenan Lewis, a cornerback, will return to his same position in 2014. Kenny Vaccaro, a 2013 draft pick, will move to strong safety, and cornerback Patrick Robinson will return from a torn patellar tendon that kept him out for all but two games in 2013. Add Byrd into the mix at free safety and Bailey as a potential competitor for Robinson’s staring job, and the Saints have an ideal mix of experience and promise in their defensive backfield.
"We can be as good as we want to be," Byrd said in early August. "Coach Ryan does a great job of getting guys in position to make plays. … Each person’s different [in] what they like to do, where they like to see things and how we see things so as long as we get together and study together as a unit, we can be as good as we want to be."
However, the unit has only practiced together for the last week. Byrd was sidelined until July 29 after undergoing offseason back surgery, and Bailey fought another left foot injury -- different from his Lisfranc sprain of a year ago, he said -- for much of training camp. Bailey returned to practice before the team’s third preseason game, and both he and Byrd got reps in Indianapolis against the Colts.
"Now, it’s about being on the same page, making sure we understand the same terminology," Bailey said. "It takes a while to grow like that. The good thing is we’re allowed all that time in the summer and the spring to get that going. It’s still getting into game shape, understanding things, especially in this stadium, where it’s so loud. You’ve got to have a lot of signals. There are all those little things that allow us to play fast."
Both have meshed well with Ryan in these first months in New Orleans. A mere mention of the coach’s name, and each player lights up. Bailey said that the way Ryan translates concepts from the meeting room to the field is “unbelievable,” and he lauded the coach for understanding his players and their strengths.
And though Byrd and Bailey spent much of training camp on the sidelines, that didn’t stop younger players from approaching them for counsel. Lewis, who was just 14 when Bailey made his first Pro Bowl, has been anything but shy about approaching the older cornerback, whose locker resides next to his.
"I’m pretty sure I’ve asked him too many questions since he’s been here,” Lewis said. “Just the small things… watching tape, some of the things I need to learn from different quarterbacks and the connections they have with receivers, and the receivers’ footwork and how they line up and stuff like that helps me out tremendously."
But despite the admiration, Bailey remains self-deprecating. If his new teammates are still in awe, he said, they’d better get over it. His success over the past 15 years has nothing to do with the Saints going forward, he pointed out -- except, of course, that the younger players are eating up every detail.
"Every day, there’s always something for me to talk about with the young guys," Bailey said. "I’m always available for them. I always make sure they understand that, and whatever they have for me, I’ll always listen and try to help them. And also, when I see things, I’m not going to hesitate to let them know. A lot of these guys don’t have proven vets, guys that have put in the time. I want to make sure I give them all that I know."
At the Pro Bowl in 2012, Bailey and Byrd played together for the AFC, representing Denver and Buffalo, respectively. Byrd had a year left on his rookie deal at the time, and Bailey couldn’t have imagined ever leaving the Broncos. Even so, the older player told the younger one that someday, he would love to play with him. Neither thought it would be possible.
Not even two years later, though, here they are -- Byrd with a chance to win for the first time in his pro career, Bailey trying to earn his first Super Bowl ring in a place he never thought he’d be. Bailey got his wish, and even if it’s far from how he might have imagined it, even if he’s lost his number and a measure of security, he can’t help but smile.
This isn’t bad. This is good, great even, and the Saints built it from nothing.