By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
With Champ Bailey’s release, it may be more than an illustrious career that’s over. It may be the end of the shutdown cornerback, too.
Yeah, I know all about Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis and Patrick Peterson, but they don’t play in an age where base defenses predominate, man-to-man coverages are the norm and two cornerbacks combat opponents’ primary wide receivers. Bailey did, and he was so good that in 15 NFL seasons he was named to 12 Pro Bowls — four more than Deion Sanders, four more than Aeneas Williams and five more than Darrell Green.
OK, so Sherman, Revis and Peterson are premier cornerbacks in today’s game, but it’s a different era. They’re routinely joined by two and three cornerbacks as defenses scramble to adjust to spread offenses, waves of receivers and quarterbacks who throw 50 or more times a game. Once upon a time, you might’ve had to lock down a Demaryius Thomas to solve Peyton Manning and beat Denver. Now, you have to worry about Wes Welker … and Julius Thomas … and Emmanuel Sanders …
I think you get the idea.
Plus, cornerbacks today play at a time when the NFL seems more interested in promoting scoring and helping offenses than it does strengthening defensive play. The “points of emphasis” that were enforced in preseason not only produced a raft of penalties; they affected coverages, with defensive backs trying to figure out how much contact they’re allowed to have.
Result: The effectiveness of cornerbacks was challenged.
But that’s my point. Champ Bailey was so good in the game he played that his effectiveness was seldom challenged. According to Pro Football Focus, opponents threw at Bailey just 20 times in 2008 … 20 times … tangible evidence of the respect opponents had for him.
It’s not just that his coverage skills were exemplary; it’s that he could turn a game with one play, as he did in the 2005 playoffs when his interception and 100-yard return of a Tom Brady pass launched the Broncos’ to a 27-13 defeat of the defending Super Bowl champions.
“When you think of a shutdown corner,” Baltimore wide receiver Torrey Smith said, “you think of Champ Bailey.”
When I think of a shutdown corner, I think of Deion Sanders, Mike Haynes, Rod Woodson, Darrell Green and, yes, Champ Bailey.
Bailey broke into the league in 1999 when the shotgun offense was a third-down alignment. Now, it’s a conventional setup, with offenses routinely opening with three-and-four-wide receiver sets, which means quarterbacks have more options and can attack the weakest link … and look no farther than division champions Philadelphia and New England for the evidence. Their leading interceptors in 2013 were nickel backs — Brandon Boykin with the Eagles and Logan Ryan with the Pats.
The point is: Why go at a Richard Sherman or Darrelle Revis if you don’t have to? And today … well, today you don’t have to.
The proliferation of spread offenses and the rules changes that handicap defensive backs in coverages have more and more clubs going to zone packages — which means the end of the shutdown cornerback. Once, you could look forward to a Deion Sanders vs. Jerry Rice or Champ Bailey vs. Randy Moss for an entire afternoon, but those days are disappearing … if they’re not already gone.
Champ Bailey was a great shutdown cornerback. He might have been the last.
Courtesy of Denver Broncos