Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback who became one of the most accomplished players in Denver Broncos history during his 10 years with the team, was released by the club on Thursday.
Bailey was due a $1 million roster bonus on March 15. Releasing Bailey saves the Broncos $9 million against the 2014 salary cap and puts the veteran on the free-agent market for the first time in his 15-year career.
"This was a difficult decision for our team with everything that Champ Bailey has meant to the Denver Broncos and this community over the last 10 years," Broncos general manager John Elway said in a statement. "Without question, he's among the best cornerbacks to ever play the game and one of the finest players in the history of the Broncos. You couldn't ask for more in a player than what Champ brought to this team. His combination of elite talent, class, leadership and competitiveness made him one of the all-time greats.
"On behalf of everyone with the Broncos, I wish Champ all the best and thank him for everything he did for this franchise. Champ will always be a Bronco. We look forward to his Ring of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame election in the years ahead."
There is no Broncos defensive player in the Hall of Fame, so Bailey would be the first if elected after he retires. Former Denver safety Steve Atwater advanced to the list of 25 semifinalists this year but did make the final 15.
Bailey said recently he wanted to return next season, even if that meant a move to safety. He had said before his first Super Bowl -- a painful 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks -- that retirement might be an option.
Bailey will turn 36 in June and appeared in just five regular-season games last season because of a Lisfranc foot injury. He returned for the playoffs and was beaten soundly in man coverage by Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin on two big plays.
"You don't want to think about that right now," Bailey said before being released. "I think it's obvious for everybody in this (Broncos) locker room. Most people in this locker room have to deal with something coming up. You deal with it when you can."
Bailey, a member of the 2000s NFL All-Decade Team, spent 10 seasons (2004-13) in Denver, where he became one of the most decorated players in team annals. His 12 career Pro Bowl selections trail only Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White (13) among defensive players in NFL history and tie for the sixth most overall.
"I consider it a privilege to have coached Champ these last three years," Broncos head coach John Fox said. "I thank him and truly appreciate everything he did for our team. There's no doubt he played an integral role in establishing a culture of winning here.
"Aside from his natural ability, Champ set a great example with his hard work and relentless commitment to mastering his craft."
Meanwhile, agent Jack Reale believes Bailey's fate was sealed when he continued to play injured last season.
"Champ is appreciative of the 10 years he had there," Reale told the Denver Post. "It's unfortunate frankly that he tried to play hurt this year. Because most people with that injury would wind up on IR. But he felt this was a year they were going to go to the Super Bowl, and he was dadgum if he was going to watch that game from the press box or sidelines.
"He tried to get it done. And unfortunately everybody wants to judge him based on playing hurt. Which is how it goes in the league. Rarely, if ever do you get an 'attaboy' if you don't play as well hurt as you do when you're healthy."
--Sure, Denver Broncos coach John Fox is dealing with the frustration that one can expect to extract from losing in the Super Bowl by a lopsided margin. But 18 days after the humbling 43-8 shellacking to the Seahawks, he wasn't moping about what contributed to the result.
"As you look back, get a chance to look at the tape and expound on that, I think we're capable of playing better," Fox said. "Not taking anything away from them, they had a lot to do with it. It was disappointing that we didn't play better."
"It's a team thing," Fox later added. "And they had something to do with it. Give them credit. We were just awful. I think we could have executed better. But (the Seahawks) had a little to do with that. And they did that against New Orleans twice. That's a pretty good outfit."
But Fox understood the Broncos were complicit in their own demise.
One area of consternation revolved around the Broncos' short kickoff to Percy Harvin to open the second half, which he fielded on the bounce and returned 87 yards for the touchdown that effectively ended Denver's realistic hopes of a comeback.
Fox said the kickoff was intentionally pooched. It bounced at the 13-yard line, but went straight up, allowing Harvin to get under the football and immediately sprint forward.
"It was an aggressive call. But it was a great call. It was a great kick. Just a (bad) bounce for the good guys," Fox said. "If the ball bounces anywhere other than how it did, we've got a 90 percent chance of getting it, so that would have been a nice way to start the third quarter, is by recovering a muffed pooch kick, which it was perfect, but the ball bounced straight up to him."
Once Harvin took off, the Broncos' wave of injuries exacted another toll: a chain-reaction of personnel shifts that began with the loss of several key starters and ended with shuffled special teams that resulted in three kickoff returns of at least 88 yards allowed by the Broncos from December onward.
"And then we missed five tackles," Fox said. "That (the personnel shuffling) is not an excuse. It's just what happened."
"But we didn't play well."
They didn't, but there isn't cause for panic, even though the roster will undoubtedly change in the coming weeks. With pending unrestricted free agents like running back Knowshon Moreno, wide receiver Eric Decker, guard Zane Beadles and linebacker Wesley Woodyard, the Broncos will absorb a personnel hit.
But with players like left tackle Ryan Clady, linebacker Von Miller, defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, defensive end Derek Wolfe, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and safety Rahim Moore expected to return from various injuries, the Broncos will get an upgrade from their Super Bowl roster even if they don't add an unrestricted free agent.
"You know, I don't know if I'd say we have a lot of high needs, but obviously every team has needs. We will get some guys back, which should help," Fox said. "I feel good about where we are and the way John (Elway) has maneuvered it moving forward. Now it's just a matter of time."
And that time is ticking down. Free agency hits March 11. Elway just signed a three-year extension, through 2017, and his next task is talking with John Fox's agent, Bob LaMonte, about the coach's extension. The two sides plan to meet at the combine.
"I want to get him done," Elway said. "I'm going to sit down with his agent while I'm here. I'm going to sit down with him, see where we come out and what they're thinking."
But what Elway and Fox are thinking is clear: as bad as the Super Bowl was, their team isn't in need of a gutting.
"It was very disappointing the way we played in the Super Bowl, but looking back not to let what we did in the Super Bowl cloud what we did this season," said Elway. "It was a tremendous year."
--Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning passed his physical exam Monday, planned primarily to gauge the status of his surgically repaired neck, and is cleared to play in 2014.
Manning passed the team's exit interview physical last month but returned for physicians to more closely evaluate the neck area reconstructed in spinal fusion surgery in 2012.
Monday's exam was a contractually required check-up on his neck that came along with the free-agent deal the Broncos gave Manning before the 2012 season.
--Defensive end Derek Wolfe suffered a seizure in late November that cost him the remainder of the season, but says he's gained back 20 pounds and will be ready to begin working out in the next week.
"I'm going to come back bigger, faster, stronger. Ready to start training next week," Wolfe told the ABC-TV affiliate in Denver.
Wolfe injured his spinal cord in the preseason, but he believes he attempted to come back too quickly after it had healed. He said, "(That) screwed up my nervous system."
While on the team bus heading to the airport for a game in Kansas City, Wolfe said his nervous system "started shutting down." He was hospitalized and was knocked out for 26 hours. He told the TV station that when he regained consciousness, he was unaware where he was and broke the hospital bed he was on when nurses attempted to hold him down.
--The Broncos have 18 players due to become unrestricted free agents, a group that includes a two-time 1,000-yard receiver (Eric Decker), their leading rusher (Knowshon Moreno), a team captain the last five seasons (Wesley Woodyard), a Pro Bowl guard (Zane Beadles), their best defensive back last season (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) and their leading sacker in 2013 (Shaun Phillips).
Don't expect any of them to receive the franchise tag. And don't expect Decker to be re-signed, either, given the other contracts the Broncos have and will have among pass-catchers.
"I think they have to hit the market. And the market sets those (terms)," said general manager John Elway. "So, especially when you look at where we are and what we have coming up -- Julius and (Demaryius), both Thomases are up next year. And Wes (Welker) is, too. All that plays into it."
Decker said he would entertain discussions of a return to the Broncos, but more than likely he will test the free-agent market by doing what is best for his family.
"I would like to figure something out and stay here, but at the same time, my priority is taking care of my family and making sure I set myself up the right way," Decker said Tuesday on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "If we can get on the same page and if we can understand one another, that would be awesome, but a lot of that control is not in my hands. So I'm just going to enjoy these couple of weeks off and see what it brings."
Decker hinted he may be willing to take less money for the right situation.
"The best offer to me isn't necessarily the most money," he said. "For me, am I going to have fun going to work every day? That doesn't add up to any dollar amount, that's priceless. The situation, the city, the organization itself from the top down, the owner, the GM, the coaching staff, the culture they've built in the locker room, all that's going to play into my decision."
Decker could receive one of the more lucrative contracts once the new league year begins next month.
Decker, who turns 27 in March, set career highs with 87 catches for 1,288 yards in 2013. He also had 11 touchdown receptions.
Elway said he will work to re-sign Decker. "We'd love to have Eric back, and I know Eric has made the comment that he'd like to be back, but it's just a matter of he's got to do what's best for Eric, too, and vice versa," Elway said. "That's why we go through this process. Then once we get closer to free agency, we'll have a better idea where everything's going."
--Coach John Fox was optimistic about the prognosis for cornerback Chris Harris, Jr., who underwent surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament on Feb. 6.
"Chris's (situation) was a little unique, because it wasn't completely torn," Fox said. "They said he could have played. But the problem is that if you further injure it, you could get meniscus damage."
Harris avoided that by being placed on injured reserve, and given the nature of his injury, the Broncos are optimistic he can be ready in time for training camp, even though it begins just six and a half months after he was injured on Jan. 12 against the Chargers.
"His (surgery) was not a complete reconstruct, so his was a little bit better off than some," said Fox. "Now whether that translates, I'm not a doctor, but I just know that wasn't as bad as some."
--The Broncos signed executive vice president of football operations John Elway to a three-year contract extension through the 2017 season.
In addition, the club has added general manager to Elway's title.
Said club president Joe Ellis in a statement, "Our organization is extremely pleased with the work John Elway has done in his three years since rejoining the Broncos," Ellis said. "He has demonstrated great vision and leadership in his role, assembling a championship-caliber team and positioning it for sustained success.
"We are very confident in the direction of the Broncos with John Elway leading our football operations."
--Elway wants to talk with cornerback Champ Bailey about his future, as well. Bailey is owed $10.5 million this year, including a $1 million roster bonus.
"We're still in the process of talking about that and seeing what we're going to do there," Elway said. "I'm going to sit down with Champ, first of all, and find out what he wants to do, and go from there."
In recent weeks, Bailey has expressed a willingness to accept a move to safety if that is what keeps him in the NFL for his 16th season this fall. But given his struggles with a foot injury last year that cost him 11 games and his up-and-down play when he returned, he is a prime candidate for a restructure or even a release if an accord cannot be reached.
Bailey said before Super Bowl XLVIII that he wanted to keep playing "'til I can't, or 'til I don't like it."
"I really don't know. I don't think about retiring," he added.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Those problems in Miami, those surprise me because I think that we never had those issues in Denver when it came down to the things that went on in that locker room and the things that were said. I think that every locker room that I've ever been in in the NFL and the guys I've been around have always respected the right of other players. There is a line you don't cross. I still believe that's the way the majority of the NFL is. This brings it to light a little bit to where it prevents it from happening again. But I don't think it's something that is ... rampant throughout the NFL." -- John Elway, on his reaction to the Ted Wells report about the Dolphins.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
S Mike Adams
DE Robert Ayers
G Zane Beadles
WR Andre Caldwell
WR Eric Decker
G Chris Kuper
LB Paris Lenon
RB Knowshon Moreno
DE Shaun Phillips
CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
LB Wesley Woodyard
MIDDLE LINEBACKER: Paris Lenon was a stop-gap replacement after Wesley Woodyard struggled to make plays there, and the Broncos would like to find an every-down option.
SAFETY: Mike Adams is a free agent, Rahim Moore is coming off compartment syndrome and Duke Ihenacho was inconsistent. Denver badly needs a playmaking safety.
WIDE RECEIVER: If Denver loses Eric Decker in free agency, they will need another veteran. They also need a developmental slot receiver to eventually replace Wes Welker.
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- American Football
- Champ Bailey
- Denver Broncos