ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — It happens to so many of the great cornerbacks and Champ Bailey knows it will happen to him, too.
Entering his 15th year in the NFL and still in search of the Super Bowl title that is the only piece missing from a Hall of Fame-bound career, Bailey knows the move from cornerback to safety is inevitable for defensive backs trying to prolong their careers.
“You’ve got to look at history,” Bailey told The Associated Press after practice on Thursday. “Ronnie Lott. Rod Woodson. Aeneas Williams. They all did it and they all did it before I did. History says this is about that time. I understand that and I’m not naive about it.”
Lott was 26 when he made the move — a small detour on his way to the Hall of Fame. Williams was 33. Woodson was 34. Bailey turned 35 in the offseason. He knows the whispers and questions get louder with each passing year.
Every time he gets beaten badly — and that happened twice in the playoff loss to Baltimore last year — it’s not simply a bad play, but rather a possible sign that his career is dwindling.
Every time the Broncos sign or draft another cornerback — and that happened a handful of times this offseason — it’s not simply a transaction but rather a possible sign the Broncos are looking for his eventual replacement.
All of which may be true, Bailey concedes.
“But nobody’s going to determine when I move if I don’t feel like it’s the right time,” he said. “It’ll definitely be a decision and, whether I’m here or somewhere else, it has to be the right fit.”
Through the first week of this, his 10th preseason with the Broncos, Bailey and Denver still look to be the right fit for each other, the way they have been since Bailey arrived in Denver in a trade with Washington for Clinton Portis in the 2004 offseason.
Bailey is lining up in his usual spot on the corner, sparring with members of Denver’s loaded receiving corps — namely, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. In deference to the mileage on those thirty-something legs, the Broncos are limiting his time on the practice field, the same way they have the last few seasons.
“I think that’s going to help in the long run,” Bailey said.
But his time on the sideline isn’t down time. It’s time spent observing, studying, mentoring. Bailey didn’t get to his spot as one of the most revered cornerbacks in the game without becoming a student of the game itself.
“I would say the defense, really,” cornerback Chris Harris said when asked what he’s learned from Bailey. “Being able to ID what the offenses are trying to do to try to attack me. Champ gives me an idea how guys want to run routes toward him.”
Harris is among those benefiting from playing in the same backfield as Bailey, but also among those who could be in line to take his spot one day.
In the offseason, the Broncos signed free agent Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and drafted speedy Kayvon Webster, who, upon learning he would get the chance to play with Bailey, said, “I love Champ. Favorite corner.”
After each move, the underlying question was whether the transaction signaled the official start of the beginning of the end for Roland “Champ” Bailey in the lockdown corner position.
“He can still get the job done,” Harris insists. “He wouldn’t be here if he can’t do it. Everybody has confidence in him to still be Champ Bailey.”
By “being Champ Bailey” over his first 14 seasons, he has compiled one of the most impressive stat lines in history for a cornerback, including:
—12 career Pro Bowl selections, a record for a defensive back.
—52 career interceptions, which places him third on the list of active players.
—A total of three pass interference calls in 504 throws his way over the past seven years, according to Stats Inc.
Teams are going after him more of late, and figure to do so again in 2013. Bailey was victimized by Baltimore’s Torrey Smith, who caught a pair of long touchdown passes against him in Denver’s 38-35 playoff loss to the Ravens.
It made for a long offseason for Bailey, who, like all great cornerbacks, has learned to have a short memory.
“I’m still Champ,” he said. “I still can play this game at a high level and I believe in myself 100 percent just as much as when I was 25. There’s no challenge put in front of me that I won’t take on like a man and go out there and try to do the best that I can. I believe in myself and only time will tell if I need to move or anything like that.”
For now, the answer is ‘No.’
But regardless of the position, he knows time is running out in the quest for a Super Bowl ring.
“I look at it as my only shot,” Bailey said of the 2013 season. “I don’t know what’s to be said about next year. I’m looking at right now as my only shot. I hope everybody in that locker room feels the same way because nothing’s guaranteed in this league and we could all be in different places next year.”
By Eddie Pells, AP Writer (© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)