March 6, 2014 Updated: March 6, 2014 at 7:38 pm
DENVER — When I remember Champ Bailey's career with the Broncos, the memory will be this.
Prior to each practice, whether in training camp's August heat or December's breezy chill, Champ would stroll from the locker room to the east sideline, then stop, suddenly. He would lean on his helmet, bow his head and pray. Then he would snap his chinstrap and commence his workday as a Broncos employee.
Champ Bailey is a professional of strict routines. This I learned from a short time around him, just two seasons. You can't sustain a 15-year NFL career — with 12 Pro Bowl selections and uniformed by only two teams — without being that way. That's why he will have more seasons in the NFL, just not with the Broncos, who cut him from their payroll Wednesday. This year in Colorado, Todd Helton won't be at first base, and Champ Bailey won't be at corner. Our mountains, presumably, are still safe.
There are other times from Bailey's 10 seasons in Denver I will remember, like the 100-yard interception return off Tom Brady, his partial ownership of the Raiders, his 10 picks in 2006, his cameo in Mike Shanahan's offense. I also appreciated when, at Oakland in the final game of last season, I watched Champ emerge from the tunnel alongside Charles Woodson, another defensive back destined for the Hall of Fame. That was a subtle moment, a pair of greats in their career sunsets, but one that doesn't come around often.
Sort of like Champ. I asked Bailey during the 2012 season to name the two best defensive backs he's ever seen.
"Deion Sanders, as far as straight cover ability," Bailey said.
"Rod Woodson, in terms of all-around," he added.
Regardless of position, Champ is the greatest defender to play for the Broncos, at least that I've seen. That's my opinion; yours might differ. There are many reasons, but it comes back to his mastery of the most fundamental skill in football: tackling. Champ is the finest tackler I've seen.
Do you remember the one he missed? That we can recall his whiff of Terrell Owens down the right sideline — in one of Champ's eight Pro Bowl seasons as a Bronco — shows how rare it was.
"Him and Deion Sanders, those are really, really special athletes," former Broncos safety Steve Atwater said from Atlanta.
This was not a memorable moment, more of a sobering one, and the beginning of his end in Denver:
After the preseason meltdown in Seattle, in which the Seahawks whipped the Broncos 40-10, Bailey hobbled from the locker room on crutches. Going from two healthy wheels to relying on crutches makes anyone apprehensive; Champ appeared particularly and uncomfortably slow with the transition. There were only a half-dozen Denver media types in Seattle — this was preseason, after all - yet we shared the same sentiment.Ehhh. Champ Bailey needs crutches? Or do the crutches need Champ Bailey? This doesn't feel right.
Turns out, Champ never got right. His foot wasn't entirely healed until January, and we can't be certain it's entirely healed even now. His plight this season — a lost season of only five games played for Champ — was, at least to me, more about injury than age. As recently as 2012, Champ was named to the All-Pro second team.
So it's reasonable to assume Bailey will finish his career on another roster, in another city, in another uniform. And that will feel a bit like Atwater finishing his career with the Jets. It's an irritating thought, like returning to your childhood home when someone else lives there. Awkward, but life moves on.
The Broncos chose to move on without Bailey, the correct move. They figure to have close to $30 million to spend in free agency, where John Elway is batting a high percentage as their chief decision-maker. One name of interest — and it would be a controversial name, given his history with the NFL's drug policy — should be former Seahawks corner Brandon Browner.
As corners, Browner is a Ford F350 to Champ's Audi A4. They are nothing alike. That's good, because if the Broncos are caught looking for the next Champ, they won't find one. In five-plus decades as a franchise, they've never had another one. It's also good because they don't need another Champ; they need a thumper whose job is to wreck receivers. It's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris' jobs to cover them.
Browner goes 6-foot-4, 220 and thumps like a sock of rocks. He's the player I remember most from Denver's preseason loss in Seattle. On a field featuring the eventual Super Bowl teams, Browner stood out like a wrecking ball in neon green.
Bailey is remembered for his consistency, his don't-worry smile, his professional routines. When someone is so good for so long, it's easy to take him for granted. That's worth remembering.