The Pro Football Hall of Fame will formally welcome its Class of 2019 on Saturday. This week, Yahoo Sports is highlighting memorable moments for each member of the eight-man class, leading up to the big ceremony.
Many longtime Denver Broncos fans will say there have been two times since their stadium opened in 2001 that they’ve felt it shake.
It happened when Tim Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas for an 80-yard touchdown to beat the Steelers in an overtime playoff game at the end of the 2011 season. But the first time the stadium truly came alive was when Champ Bailey outwitted New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in a divisional round playoff game at the end of the 2005 season.
The list of defensive backs who have made Brady look bad in a playoff game is very short. It’s fitting that Bailey is front and center on that list because in his prime he was as good as any cornerback in NFL history.
Champ Bailey was a true shutdown corner
Before getting to how Bailey bested Brady, let’s remember how good Bailey was in that era. For a few years, at his peak, Bailey was practically Deion Sanders as a cover corner but with better tackling ability.
Bailey would shadow each team’s No. 1 receiver. He rarely got beat. In 2005 and 2006 he had 18 interceptions, including three for touchdowns. In a 2006 game at Arizona, he was targeted two times. He picked both passes off. His 2006 season was as perfect as a cornerback can get, though he got passed over for NFL Defensive Player of the Year because voters are drawn to sack numbers. Despite being on an island most weeks against the opponent’s best receiver, Football Outsiders said he didn’t give up a touchdown all season. He scored two touchdowns himself on interceptions.
"This is probably the most impressive season I've ever seen by a football player,” Broncos safety John Lynch said at the end of the 2006 season, according to ESPN.com.
"Honestly, the best football player I've ever played with — or against,” Broncos receiver Rod Smith, who played 12 seasons and won two Super Bowls with John Elway, told ESPN.
Bailey’s 12 Pro Bowls are a record for a cornerback. He was freakishly athletic, but also dedicated to his craft. He understood the game inside and out and was always looking for an edge with his film study.
And that’s how Bailey beat the great Tom Brady for one of the biggest defensive plays in NFL playoff history.
Bailey takes it 100 yards the other way
The Broncos led the Patriots 10-6 late in the third quarter when New England went on a long drive. On third-and-goal at the Denver 5, Bailey knew what the Patriots wanted to do.
The Broncos were mostly a man coverage team that loved to blitz (defensive coordinator Larry Coyer could blitz heavily knowing Bailey would have sticky coverage on the opponent’s best receiver without needing help). Before the snap Bailey turned to rookie cornerback Darrent Williams, who was lined up in the slot, and changed the coverage. Bailey knew the Patriots’ two receivers on that side of the field would cross paths for a rub route, creating a legal pick play. Bailey told Williams they wouldn’t follow their men when they crossed, but stay in their spots.
The Patriots’ receivers crossed as Bailey figured, Brady was pressured on a blitz and threw outside to Troy Brown, possibly figuring he’d be free after Williams was picked by the receiver on an inside slant route. But Bailey was waiting on the outside and intercepted the pass. As Bailey ran down the sideline, the Broncos’ new stadium was the loudest it had ever been.
What happened at the end of the play has probably become more famous than the interception itself. Bailey returned the interception 100 yards, only to be smashed right before the goal line by Patriots tight end Ben Watson. Watson is lauded for his hustle on the play, coming from all the way on the other side of the field to run down Bailey and knock the ball out of bounds. Bailey has always said he wasn’t showboating or slowing down, but he was completely out of gas by the end of the return. Bailey set a dubious NFL record, with what was then the longest non-scoring play in NFL history.
There’s still controversy over whether Bailey’s fumble went out of bounds at the 1-yard line, or in the end zone. If it was in the end zone, it would have been Patriots ball on a touchback. It was challenged, there was no conclusive evidence to overturn the call, and Mike Anderson scored a 1-yard touchdown on the next play. The Broncos’ lead was never cut to single digits again and they won 27-13.
It was the first time Brady lost a playoff game, after 10 wins to start his career. Bailey’s almost-pick six is probably the most famous interception Brady has thrown.
Bailey came to Broncos in memorable trade
Bailey was a game-changing cornerback, in many ways. The blockbuster 2004 trade in which Bailey became a Bronco looks strange in retrospect. The Broncos sent running back Clinton Portis to Washington for Bailey, already a four-time Pro Bowler, and the Redskins included a second-round pick. In this era, you’d never see a team trade an elite cornerback for a running back, much less throw in a high draft pick to get it done.
Bailey ended up playing 10 seasons for the Broncos, 15 overall. He was still a Pro Bowl cornerback in 2012, at age 34. In 2013, his injury-filled final NFL season, he finally got to play in a Super Bowl.
Bailey was far from the first star shutdown cornerback in the NFL. There have been many star cornerbacks since Bailey’s prime, and that has obscured a bit how dominant Bailey was over a long period of time. Bailey is on a short list of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history and he has the accolades to back that up.
Bailey was a deserving first-ballot Hall of Famer. When Brady joins him in Canton the two will have something to reminisce about.
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