- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Twenty years ago, long before iPads were readily available and plays could be dialed up at any time, Darrell Green would insert cassette tapes into a VHS player to watch film. Sitting next to him inside the Redskins’ practice facility on these occasions was fellow cornerback Champ Bailey.

The two men were at opposite stages of their careers. By then, a 39-year-old Green was winding down his NFL journey — three years away from retirement, with two Super Bowl titles already to his name. Bailey, by comparison, was the seventh overall pick in that year’s draft — a highly regarded rookie with still much to prove.

But at 7 a.m. every Wednesday and Thursday, Green and Bailey pored over tape.

Green had been tasked by then-defensive backs coach Tom Hayes with imparting the wisdom of almost two decades of NFL experience to the rookie, who was now sitting attentively next to the player he’d idolized growing up.

They reviewed every receiver they would face that week. And as the season went on, the two men realized they shared a disciplined approach to a game they both loved.

“The unspoken premise was that we were better than them anyway,” Green said, “but we also (knew) that we’ve got enough wisdom and humility … that we’ve gotta understand what their capabilities are, what their strengths and weaknesses are.”

That confidence, born of ability and preparation, was key to Green’s success in the league — and it turned out to be a defining element of Bailey’s 15-year career as well. On the field, Bailey suffocated opposing wideouts with incomparable physical skills and an acute understanding of the game.

Bailey commanded respect from quarterbacks and receivers, and when he broke up a pass, made a game-saving tackle or ball-hawked one of his 52 career interceptions, he rarely gloated — excellence was expected.

This weekend, the former Redskin will be rewarded for his dominance when he’s enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. A first-ballot Hall of Famer, Bailey made 12 Pro Bowl appearances — a record among defensive backs.

Four of those came in Washington, but there is little doubt that when Bailey dons the traditional gold jacket Saturday, he’s being honored primarily for his time with the Denver Broncos — the team the Redskins traded him to for running back Clinton Portis in 2004.

That deal, a rare marquee player swap, is regarded as one of the most interesting in NFL history. Yet it also arguably overshadows Bailey’s five years in Washington.

“I do feel like his time as a Redskin gets overlooked,” said Fred Smoot, Bailey’s teammate from 2001 to 2003. “This was the time he cemented himself as one of the best. This is how Champ became one of the best.”

“His name was made in Washington,” said Shawn Springs, who replaced Bailey in the Redskins secondary. “His legacy was sealed in Denver.”

A corner worth drafting

If it’s easy to forget Bailey’s time in Washington now, the cornerback certainly wasn’t overlooked by the Redskins’ front office and coaching staff in the months leading up to the 1999 draft.

Then-general manager Charley Casserly had the Georgia prospect ranked as his best player in the draft.

“There was no doubt in our minds that this guy could be a top corner in the league,” Casserly said.

“You knew he was headed for greatness,” Hayes said.

The process for the Redskins to land Bailey, however, turned out to be much more complicated. That year, Washington had the fifth pick but traded down in a deal with the New Orleans Saints. Casserly had an agreement with Chicago to move back up to No. 7 to take Bailey. But at the last-minute, the Bears wanted more.

“They stick it to me now and want another third,” Casserly said. “So now I say, ‘OK, do we give them the third or do we stay at (12)?’

“We decided we wanted Champ Bailey.”

‘Wakes up competing’

It was Bailey’s third day of his rookie training camp when he was finally figured out. After spending the first two days flummoxed over Bailey’s length, Washington’s receivers discovered that, essentially, the 22-year-old had a go-to move he kept repeating.

Hayes and Green approached him with a message: “Don’t do the same thing all the time.”

Bailey’s response set a standard in his career. He quickly adjusted his game. Those around Bailey say he was a fast learner, picking up concepts and applying them without a problem.

“He would get it (right away),” Green said. “We would just laugh.”

In addition to their film sessions, Green and Bailey spent a portion of practice separated from the rest of the team. This was by design as the coaching staff wanted the two to bond — allowing them to discuss football, marbles or whatever. Green says it was the only time in his 20-year career that he had that relationship with a player.

Bailey’s effort in practice translated to games. In his first season, the Redskins had 10 wins and won the NFC East — in part because of a strong year from the rookie. Bailey tallied five interceptions, three in a game against Jake Plummer and the Arizona Cardinals. They even won a playoff contest and advanced to the NFC Divisional Round.

When Smoot joined the Redskins in 2001, he soon discovered Bailey’s “very fiery side.” Though the cornerback was quiet, he was ultracompetitive — so much so that during meetings, Smoot and Bailey would draw plays on paper with the intention of beating one another. Smoot would draw an offensive play, while Bailey responded with a defensive one to counter.

That’s just who Bailey was, Smoot said.

“He wakes up competing,” Smoot said. “He goes to sleep competing. He’s always got a plan. He’s one of those guys who are very methodical in the way he does things.”

The trade

Green thought Bailey would be the heir apparent.

For 20 years, Green was the face of the Redskins’ defense. He knew the torch would be passed at some point, and when Washington drafted Bailey, Green embraced it. He considered Bailey the future.

So Green was shocked that the Redskins dealt the cornerback in March 2004 to Denver.

Reminded of the specifics of the trade 15 years later — Bailey and a second-round pick for PortisGreen cut off the reporter to make sure he had heard correctly.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute,” Green said. “You’ve got to back up: You mean to tell me we gave them Champ AND a second-round pick?”

That’s correct.

Green broke out into laughter. “Oh my goodness,” he said. “Maybe I knew that, but I did not remember that.”

So why did the Redskins trade Bailey? How could they have possibly let a future Hall of Famer go? Sure, Portis was a solid player — he spent seven seasons with Washington — but was that really worth it?

Then-Redskins general manager Vinny Cerrato, now a Baltimore sports radio host, says the issue came down to money. Bailey needed a new contract and the two parties disagreed on the cornerback’s value.

“I remember Dan (Snyder) and I met with his agent a couple of times and he just wanted a lot of money, a lot of years,” Cerrato said. “It was just — We just felt like for where we were at, it was just too much to invest into one player.”

The Redskins were coming off a 5-11 season and had hired Joe Gibbs for his second stint as coach. Months before the 2003 season, Bailey reportedly turned down a nine-year, $55 million contract to stay with Washington.

The Redskins’ thinking went like this: They could have Bailey or four other players capable of starting.

Washington received interest from various teams about Bailey, including the New York Jets, though the discussions didn’t gain much traction. That is, until Denver’s Mike Shanahan called, offering Portis. At the scouting combine, Gibbs and members of the coaching staff went to watch the running back’s film at the Indianapolis Colts’ practice facility. The Redskins came away impressed, soon accepting the deal.

Then, the Redskins followed through on their plan — signing Springs (six years, $31.3 million), defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin (six years, $25.5 million) and linebacker Marcus Washington (six years, $24 million). They also gave Portis an eight-year, $50.5 million extension and traded for Mark Brunell, giving the quarterback a seven-year, $43 million deal.

Bailey signed with the Broncos for a then-record seven-year, $63 million deal.

“We ended up getting four guys for the price of Champ and they all ended up starting for us,” Cerrato said.

Not everyone buys that explanation.

“I’m sorry, it just don’t add up,” Smoot said. “Longevity don’t add up. You’re talking about a player that takes away half of the field, away your No. 1 receiver on most teams. I can find anyone to run the ball.”

“I would have never traded the guy,” Casserly said.

Foundation built

Five years ago, with a sea of reporters around him leading up to Super Bowl XLVIII — his first (and only) Super Bowl appearance — Bailey said leaving Washington was the best thing to ever happen for his career. Who could blame him?

In Denver, Bailey experienced individual and team success. He made the playoffs five times, grabbed 34 interceptions and made the Pro Bowl eight times.

Until the Broncos, Bailey had only made the postseason once.

Maybe, Bailey’s time with Washington isn’t truly forgotten. It’s hard to make a case that a guy who made four Pro Bowls and played in one of the premiere divisions was truly under-appreciated.

But over time, memories fade. It’s not easy remembering what Bailey looked like, wearing that No. 24 Redskins uniform without Googling pictures or pulling up YouTube.

“It’s no secret he’s a Denver Bronco,” Green said. “He did his major damage in Denver. But he certainly built his foundation here.”

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