Only two games into his NFL career, cornerback Champ Bailey has become so valuable to the Washington Redskins' defense that Coach Norv Turner says it's too risky to play him on offense.
Ever since the Redskins used the seventh pick in April's college draft on Bailey, Turner has left open the possibility of using him as a wide receiver or kick returner, duties that Bailey performed at the University of Georgia. But with the Redskins' offense ranked first in the NFL entering Sunday's game against the New York Jets, and Bailey perhaps en route to establishing himself as one of the league's better cornerbacks, Turner said yesterday that he has no plans for Bailey to play wide receiver any time in the foreseeable future.
"From the start, I felt like we had the capabilities on offense that we wouldn't be forced to do something with Champ not in his best interests," Turner said. "With the way he's playing on defense and the way our guys are playing on offense, it's not in his best interests or our best interests to play him on offense."
It hasn't taken long for the Redskins' first two selections in the draft to begin resembling future--and perhaps present--cornerstones of the team. Tackle Jon Jansen, the second-round choice from Michigan, kept New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan in check during last Sunday's 50-21 triumph at Giants Stadium. And Bailey has played well enough to generate whispers at Redskin Park that he already is challenging veteran Darrell Green for supremacy among the club's cornerbacks.
Turner said: "He's doing well. Champ is going to have a lot of good days. He'll also have some tough days. He is a rookie. But he's playing real well. He's got a lot of competitiveness. He's physical. He'll go make a tackle."
Opposing offenses are not testing Bailey in the way that NFL teams normally go after a rookie cornerback.
"It's been pretty surprising," Bailey said yesterday. "I haven't had a lot come my way. I thought maybe I'd get more back-to-back. It's not as bad as I thought."
Said Turner: "He's going to get his share with specific routes. But for the most part, people understand he's a good player. It depends on who he's playing and how teams are attacking us. But yeah, the ball will be spread around."
And that, in turn, should give Green more chances than he's had in recent seasons to make plays and get interceptions, although the veteran said yesterday he's not necessarily looking at it that way.
"I don't know how it's going to affect me," Green said. "But I look at it one way: We all have a job to do, and we all have to get it done."
For his part, Bailey doesn't rave about his play in his first two games.
"Up to this point, I've been all right," he said. "I can get a lot better. There are some mistakes I'm making that I shouldn't make. I've let some deep balls get caught on me, and I usually never let that happen. I was in position, and I let them catch it anyway. I should make those plays."
The Redskins permitted Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman to throw for 362 yards and five touchdowns in the Cowboys' 41-35 overtime victory in the season opener. Giants quarterbacks Kent Graham and Kerry Collins totaled 312 passing yards last weekend. Mostly, though, Bailey was not at fault.
He had an interception in the opener and blanketed Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin for most of the day. Irvin made a catch on Bailey on the Cowboys' second offensive play and turned it into a 34-yard gain. But Bailey shut down Irvin for most of the rest of the game until suffering muscle cramps in his leg. With Bailey on the sideline, Irvin got going to help the Cowboys overcome a 21-point deficit in the final 11 minutes of regulation. He got behind reserve cornerback Darryl Pounds for one touchdown catch, and used his size advantage to outmaneuver Green for another.
Bailey gave up some receptions against the Giants, but the Redskins had jumped to an early lead and were in control virtually the entire way. The Redskins saw signs of improvement from their entire defense in that game, and they remain convinced that Bailey and Green will enable them to cover opposing wide receivers one on one so that they can devote the sort of manpower they want going after quarterbacks.
That's the defensive formula the Redskins had in mind when their starters were yielding only six points in seven quarters of work during the preseason, and they still hope they'll have that kind of aggressive, sometimes overpowering defense.
Bailey is likely to be assigned most often Sunday to Jets wideout Keyshawn Johnson--a big, physical receiver like Irvin. Bailey says the two are similar.
"Both of them are big," Bailey said. "Both of them compete. They both go after the ball. They're a lot alike. They're similar in more ways than they're different."
It appears at this point that only a run of injuries will get Bailey any significant playing time at wide receiver this season.
The Redskins' starting wideouts, Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell, are playing well. Veteran Irving Fryar was signed during training camp and just now is getting fully comfortable with the offense, and club officials have not given up on acquiring Seattle Seahawks holdout wide receiver Joey Galloway by the NFL's Oct. 19 trade deadline.
Bailey remains hopeful that he'll get the nod on offense for at least a few plays, but he's not pushing the issue.
"I don't worry about it," Bailey said. "I'm just trying to play well at corner. That's up to the coaches. I still want to do it."
CAPTION: Redskins Coach Norv Turner says "it's too risky" to have cornerback Champ Bailey play on offense.