Washington Redskins cornerback Champ Bailey treated New York Giants receivers like a shadow, staying close with every twist and turn, every burst of speed, each drop on the dime on almost every play. Bailey has been so sublime at covering wideouts this season that offenses have shown the fourth-year defensive back the greatest respect: throwing away from him.
So when Bailey twisted like a pretzel in the second quarter, allowing a 29-yard touchdown pass to Amani Toomer, it looked almost surreal.
"I try to play a perfect game," Bailey said, "even if it's not going to happen."
Bailey's grace and athletic ability have been enticing enough for the Redskins to use him as their top punt returner. But while Bailey has become one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, making touchdowns against him an anomaly, the 24-year-old remains unpolished as a punt returner.
Toomer's score against Bailey was compounded by a dropped punt in the third quarter that led to another Giants touchdown. And Bailey's gaffes proved critical in yesterday's 27-21 loss to the Giants at FedEx Field, which eliminated the Redskins from the playoffs.
"It was an unfortunate day for me," Bailey said.
With about three minutes left in the second quarter, the Giants led 10-0 with good field position after intercepting Danny Wuerffel. On second and 10 from the Redskins 29-yard line, quarterback Kerry Collins jutted to his right to avoid pressure before unleashing a pass. Toomer lost Bailey on a nifty stop-and-go -- "he double-moved me," the cornerback said -- causing Bailey to spin. And although the pass was underthrown, Bailey was out of position, allowing Toomer to wait for the ball before catching it.
"At the moment, it makes me feel bad," Bailey said, "but at the same time I have to go back and play again. That's just the way the game goes. Guys are going to make plays. The only thing for me to do is just forget about it and keep moving."
Cornerback Fred Smoot said, "Everybody makes mistakes. An underthrown ball is the most dangerous ball in the NFL. I don't think that play determined the game."
Toomer's touchdown gave the Giants a 17-0 lead but Bailey played almost flawlessly the rest of the way -- on defense.
However, late in the third quarter, Mike Allen booted a punt that wobbled -- "a knuckleball," Coach Steve Spurrier said -- as it descended near the Redskins 20. Bailey initially thought the ball was going deeper, and was forced to run up to catch the ball. "I was about two steps further back," Bailey said, "than I should have been."
With Giants special teams players eagerly approaching, Bailey signaled for a fair catch. But Bailey dropped the ball, causing a mad scramble before it was recovered by cornerback Kato Serwanga, who was released from the Redskins' injured reserve list last week. Two plays later, the Giants led 24-14 on a one-yard run by Tiki Barber. And many of the Giants fans who invaded FedEx Field roared in approval.
When Jacquez Green suffered a deep cut in his leg against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Nov. 10, Bailey took over the punt returning duties. Bailey was an obvious choice -- his first NFL punt return went 54 yards against the Cowboys on Sept. 18, 2000. And Bailey showed promise this season in practices. But against the Jaguars in Week 10, Bailey allowed three punts to drop within the 10-yard line, leading to bad field position that eventually allowed the Jaguars to kick field goals each time. Nonetheless, the Redskins released Green, and named Bailey the No. 1 punt returner.
Only one of three punts in Jacksonville should have been caught by Bailey, according to special teams coach Mike Stock. But after the cornerback got the job, Spurrier said yesterday, the coaching staff had urged Bailey to make a fair catch instead of risking a bad bounce.
"We've been telling Champ, run over there and catch those," Spurrier said. "So he went up and tried to catch it. I think he got a little bit of a late start and also it came down like a knuckleball."
Spurrier said Bailey will keep the job the rest of the season. But Bailey believes the organization would rather go with someone else next year.
"They don't really want me back there. I know it," said Bailey, who returned four punts for a total of 49 yards his senior season at Georgia. "But I would love to do it [next season]. I wish I could do it full time. I know they're going to try to replace me."
Bailey is on pace for his third straight trip to the Pro Bowl. "It's kind of bittersweet," Bailey said, "because we don't win. And I want to win more than go to the Pro Bowl."
Rookie Rashad Bauman, who has displaced Darrell Green as the team's third cornerback, marvels at Bailey's ability to blanket receivers. So Bauman, like others, viewed Bailey getting beat badly as an anomaly.
"Everybody in the world gets beat," Bauman said. "But Champ doesn't get beat too often. And when you do see it, it's a rare sight."
Bailey doesn't mind that others expect a flawless performance because the 24-year-old feels the same way. When Bailey slowly changed into dress clothes in the locker room, chatting to Smoot, Bailey wore a grim expression.
"I don't think it's supposed to happen either, but it's going to happen sometimes." Bailey said. "It hadn't happened all year. I love when people feel like I'm not supposed to do that. I feel that way, too."