- The Washington Times - Friday, December 6, 2002

Cornerback Champ Bailey is quietly reasserting himself as one of the NFL's premier cornerbacks, and the payoff could be a return to starting status in the Pro Bowl.
Bailey slumped a bit last season after establishing himself as a rising star in 2000, when he earned a Pro Bowl start while playing alongside Deion Sanders. Last year Bailey gave up a number of touchdown passes early and played in the Pro Bowl only after Philadelphia cornerback Troy Vincent was injured.
This year the 24-year-old cover man has returned to form even as his responsibilities have broadened and teams have limited his chances, often throwing away from him.
"I think I peaked my second year, leveled off last year and I'm going up high again," Bailey said. "I've just got to keep working. I'm never satisfied. I've got to keep getting better."
Fans have picked up on Bailey's quiet effectiveness, making him the NFL's top vote-getter among cornerbacks (173,572) and No.8 among all NFC defensive players through Wednesday. No other member of the 5-7 Redskins appeared on the league's release of voting leaders.
Voting continues on NFL.com through Dec.13; votes from fans, coaches and players each count one-third toward selections that will be announced Dec.19.
Bailey's diverse duties this year have involved extensive third-down play in the slot, where he must work with linebackers and worry about the run as well as the pass. He sometimes blitzes, allowing him to record three pressures to go with his three interceptions and 20 passes defensed. And twice recently, coaches have locked him up on the opponent's star wideout the New York Giants' Amani Toomer on Nov.17 and Dallas' Joey Galloway on Thanksgiving Day.
"He's been in a lot of positions for us," defensive backs coach George Catavolos said. "He's one of the few guys who can do that and still be effective in his play."
In both one-on-one efforts, Bailey shut down the receivers only to have them make big plays when Washington switched briefly to a zone. Toomer caught a 35-yard touchdown pass, New York's only TD in a 19-17 win. Galloway came up with a late 41-yard score that put Dallas ahead for good in a 27-20 victory.
Bailey laughed as he admitted his frustration with those instances, but he added, "You've got to mix [your schemes] up. That's part of the game. Those guys get paid, too. They saw something and called the right play. You've got to make a play, point-blank, no matter who's out there."
The Redskins face Toomer and the Giants again Sunday at FedEx Field, though it's unclear whether Bailey will get the one-on-one matchup. All Catavolos would say is that the Redskins prefer to leave their corners on certain sides of the field. If the matchup does come, teammates know Bailey will be thrilled for the chance to add to his Pro Bowl credentials.
"I think he wakes up to that challenge, because if you tell me I've got to cover [St. Louis] Torry Holt, it cranks me up," cornerback Fred Smoot said. "It lets me know, at the end of the day, regardless of what his stats are, it's my fault. A great corner rises to the challenge, and that's what makes him Champ Bailey."
Tre's slow progress
The return of guard Tre Johnson hasn't gone quite as hoped. The former Pro Bowl blocker remains behind young Wilbert Brown more than six weeks after re-signing with the Redskins, still not quite in shape or fully rehabilitated from the knee injury that led to his preseason release by Cleveland.
There was early speculation that Johnson would be inserted almost immediately at right guard, where he thrived for the Redskins in 1999. But he's only up to about 20 to 30 snaps a game as a reserve behind Brown, a 25-year-old who is holding up in his first substantial NFL action.
"I think [Johnson] is ready to go full steam; I just don't know if he's ready to go full steam for 60 snaps," line coach Kim Helton said. "And part of that is [this]: When you're making guys split time, [its a catch-22]. If you put the guy in there the whole time, he obviously gets a shade faster. But if you don't put him in there because he's not ready [he doesn't get into shape as quickly]."
It's unclear whether Johnson will be ready to play a full game this season, and in any case injured starter Brenden Stai might return in the next week or two to claim his spot at right guard.
A looming question is whether Stai or Johnson will be back next season as the club looks to retool its offensive personnel. Stai is under contract for $1.2million; Johnson would have to be re-signed.
Johnson, for his part, wishes he could have had a full offseason to learn the Redskins' offense, get to know his linemates and condition himself, but he's pleased just to have taken some small steps back toward a regular NFL job.
"It's hard to get a rhythm when you come in, but it's given me an opportunity," Johnson said. "I'm still healing, my leg's still getting stronger. And I'm doing it without missing football time. So it's all good. I've got no complaints."
Extra points
The Redskins cleared the snow off their artificial-surface field at Redskin Park yesterday and got in about an hour-long workout. Kicker Brett Conway was released from injured reserve.

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