Chess was out because the games drag on too long, and cards
weren't an option because gambling in the workplace tends to be
frowned upon. So a few of the Washington Redskins settled on
playing checkers during their midday breaks last year,
specifically speed checkers on oversized cloth checkerboards in
the lounge of their northern Virginia training facility. Fullback
Larry Centers was best when on the attack during the fast-moving
games, but the most confounding competitors were cornerbacks
Deion Sanders and Champ Bailey, both of whom played a similar
defensive style, hanging back, waiting for their opponent to make
a mistake and then tromping him.
On the occasions when Sanders and Bailey played each other,
Sanders tried to draw out the inner Prime Time in Bailey, whose
reticence rivaled Deion's flamboyance. Sanders would let fly the
idle chatter and not stop until Bailey returned it in kind. After
all, supreme confidence was the cover charge to enter the NFL's
elite-cornerback club, and (until he announced his retirement
last month) Sanders was its head bouncer.
It turned out Bailey could talk a little smack too. During a game
against cornerback Tyrone Drakeford in mid-November, Bailey
capitalized on his opponent's mistake and maneuvered one of his
checkers onto Drakeford's back row. "You know this is over,
right?" Bailey said with mock indignation. "Just king me
Off to the side, Sanders smiled. "A lot of corners aren't ready
at his age, but he's special," Sanders said. "I've waited a long
time to pass the torch, and it's going to Champ."
With apologies to the Baltimore Ravens' Chris McAlister and the
St. Louis Rams' Dexter McCleon, go ahead and king Roland (Champ)
Bailey, 23, as the NFL's finest young cornerback. For evidence,
watch closely this season as Bailey, the seventh player picked in
the 1999 draft, does, well, virtually nothing. Watch as his
interceptions (five in each of his first two years) dry up, as
the number of passes thrown his way decreases. Don't be surprised
if the sinewy 6'1", 184-pound Bailey--a blanketing 4.2 burner and
strong tackler--finishes with, say, two interceptions and 29
tackles, the same totals Sanders had with the Dallas Cowboys in
1997, when he was an All-Pro.
"He's an outstanding player, and you have to watch him because he
can turn a game around," New York Giants coach Jim Fassel says of
Bailey. "I saw him as a rookie, when Michael Irvin went after him
in Dallas, and he picked a ball off. Michael couldn't intimidate
him, couldn't outmuscle him, couldn't do anything against him."
During Washington's disastrous 2000 season--when the team wilted
under the expectations raised by deep-pocketed owner Daniel
Snyder's near $100 million payroll and finished 8-8, costing
coaches Norv Turner and interim replacement Terry Robiskie their
jobs--Bailey's play was one of the few bright spots. The
breakthrough began in Week 2, when the Detroit Lions attacked
Sanders, completing seven passes to his side, while Bailey twice
intercepted Detroit quarterback Charlie Batch. "It was a real
compliment to Bailey," says Tennessee Titans offensive
coordinator Mike Heimerdinger. "People [were throwing] at Deion
as if he were the lesser of two evils."
The Redskins finished the season with the NFL's second-best pass
defense, and Bailey was voted to his first Pro Bowl. Not
satisfied with his personal achievements, he threw himself into
an off-season of rigorous workouts and videotape study. One of
the biggest lessons he had learned as a rookie came when veteran
cornerback Darrell Green invited Bailey to his private Thursday
afternoon tape sessions. "Darrell showed me how much better
studying makes you," Bailey says. "But I got away from that last
year, and it hurt me. Now my reads feel more natural. I feel 10
Under the aggressive schemes of new coach Marty Schottenheimer,
Bailey is learning to make a three-step read, in which he's
expected to identify the receiver's route and bump him almost
instantly. After struggling at times in minicamp, Bailey devoted
45 minutes a day during training camp to breaking down tapes of
his performance in one-on-one drills. "You can see the confidence
building in him," says linebacker Shawn Barber. "Whether we're in
man-to-man or cover-two, you see Champ playing now and think, He
can do anything, and he knows it."
No such claims will come from Bailey. According to his mother,
Elaine, Champ never developed a taste for the spotlight. "You
could say he was a favorite son in Folkston [Ga., the Baileys'
hometown]," she says. "People have talked about him since he was
eight years old."
Bailey's play didn't just speak for itself; it shouted from the
rooftops. At Georgia he became one of the finest two-way players
of the two-platoon era, lining up regularly at wideout. In 1998,
his third and final season in Athens, he was on the field for 957
plays--offense, defense and special teams combined--and put up
impressive numbers: 47 catches for 744 yards and five touchdowns,
16 carries for 84 yards, 52 tackles, three interceptions, a
21.8-yard average on kickoff returns and a 12.3 on punt returns.
Bailey considers himself "a receiver with very good defensive
back skills," and he pestered Turner for the chance to play
wideout. Turner, however, played Bailey sparingly on offense in
four games, noting that his progress as a cornerback had been
hampered by his do-everything role with the Bulldogs. Robiskie,
who replaced Turner with three games left in the regular season,
used Bailey amply in the last game of the year, against the
Arizona Cardinals, and Bailey responded with a tantalizing
demonstration of his all-around skills, catching two passes for
54 yards, intercepting a pass, making five solo tackles, batting
away four passes and, for good measure, scoring on a seven-yard
Alas, Schottenheimer has no interest in a multitasking All-Pro
cornerback. "Champ can play offense," the coach says, "when he's
the best cornerback in the NFL."
"I respect that," says Bailey, "but then I ask myself, Who is the
best cornerback in the NFL? There will come a time when I'll
demand a chance, but not now. Not yet."
Hearing that, you can't help but think that Bailey's inner Prime
Time is really taking hold. He and Sanders spoke by phone earlier
this month, and not surprisingly, Sanders went on and on about
his blissful life as a retiree. Bailey gave way to the veteran
once more and let Deion rant. "It was all about how much he likes
just chillin'," said Bailey, "but I think he'll miss it all once
the games start."
As for those locker room games, most of the checkers
regulars--Sanders, Centers and Drakeford included--are no longer
with the team. Still, the games will likely begin anew, and in
Sanders's absence, says Barber, the man to beat is Bailey.
Both off and on the field.