DENVER — In a teaching session with his Broncos defense, Jack Del Rio had a point to make. He asked Professor Champ to the front of the class.
"Some of the younger guys were struggling on the board drawing up our defense,” said Del Rio, the "D" coordinator. “I called him up, and it was like... it was meticulous.”
Count on two things Sunday when Denver hosts Kansas City at Sports Authority Field. Denver will win its 11th straight game, and at least one of the Chiefs will say Peyton Manning is "like a coach on the field."
But there’s one on the other side, too. It’s just that — for reasons I can’t quite nail down — the most dominant defensive player in Broncos history rarely is viewed in those terms.
"I think that comes with the territory of being a corner. You don’t get noticed unless you get beat," Broncos great Steve Atwater said from Atlanta. "Champ’s one of the greatest corners of all time. Guys that know, they know.
"Him and Deion Sanders, those are really, really special athletes."
It's a short list of candidates for this honor, the best defensive player in team history. Atwater is on it. Multiple players from the Broncos' 1997 and '98 world champions said Atwater, the wrecking-ball safety, was the unquestioned leader of their Super Bowl defenses.
"I tell people all the time: My claim to fame is that I played with Steve Atwater,” former Bronco Alfred Williams said.
Feel free to add your own, but others on the short list include Randy Gradishar, Karl Mecklenburg and Louis Wright. Rich "Tombstone" Jackson, another in the Ring of Fame, would be on there, Broncos PR guru Jim Saccomano tells me.
I took a scientific, can’t-be-wrong poll Friday. I roamed Denver and asked 10 fans to name the best defensive player to play for the Broncos. One walked the other way. Only two said Champ.
Is this like an artist, where we don't acknowledge their gift until decades after the fact? If that’s the case, I wanted to know how long Bailey is going to play, so it can be settled.
"I don't really have an exit strategy yet,” he said. “I’ll know when it’s time for me to go.”
It’s not time, not close to time.
Bailey was named to the Pro Bowl for the 12th time. That ranks No. 1 all time among defensive backs. Only four NFL players, regardless of position, had more. As a Bronco, he’s been to the Pro Bowl eight times. Among Broncos, only Atwater (eight) and John Elway (nine) had that many. A Super Bowl appearance would be Bailey’s first.
“It would mean everything. That’s why I play.”
Deion Sanders (“As far as straight coverage ability”) and Rod Woodson (“In terms of all around”) are the best defensive backs he’s seen, Bailey told me.
“Playing on the other side of Champ?” cornerback Tony Carter said. “You get all the action. They’re not throwing to his side.”
“When they do, it’s a surprise,” Carter said.
When they do, it’s often a mistake. Quarterbacks completed only 37 of 76 passes thrown in Bailey’s direction. That completion percentage ranks sixth among defensive players targeted 75 or more times.
“To play that many seasons still at corner and be one of the best, and he hasn’t moved to safety, it says a lot about him,” Atwater said. "I think what he’s learned is to play smarter. The guys that last in the league, they play smarter. He’s still very, very effective.”
Bailey listed ex-Redskins Mark Carrier and Darrell Green as football influences. His life influence remains his father, Roland Bailey, who’s in the Mile High stands five or six times each season.
“My dad, he always wanted us to be the best at what we did. That’s all he would tell us: I don’t care what you’re doing, be the best at it. He said, ‘If it’s legal or illegal, be the best at it,'" Champ said, laughing. “He didn’t want us to do anything illegal, but that simple point, I took it to heart since I was a kid. That’s the way I’ve tried to live every day.”
In a meeting with his defense, Del Rio posed a question for Champ.
In a locker room with his team, Champ was asked another: Are you the best defensive player to suit up for the Broncos?
“I haven’t seen every guy that’s played on this defense in this organization,” he said. “But I would consider myself one of the top guys. The best? It’s debatable.”
Actually, it’s Champ.