-- The break is complete now, both physically and emotionally. Champ Bailey has moved his family out here and is about to sell his house in Northern Virginia. And when his new team, the Denver Broncos, took the field on this cool, cloudy Wednesday morning for the opening practice of training camp, all eyes were on Bailey, the anointed difference-maker for a club trying to recapture its Super Bowl glory of the late 1990s after going five seasons without a playoff win.
Fans called his name. They cheered loudly when the cornerback made a lightning-quick break to knock away a pass headed for wide receiver Ashley Lelie during a drill. Some things were the same for Bailey as he prepares for his sixth NFL season -- from his fast, fluid movements on the field to his mannerisms, as when he propped his helmet atop his head during breaks. But much is different as Bailey adjusts to life after the trade that sent him from the Washington Redskins to Denver for tailback Clinton Portis in a rare NFL swap of Pro Bowl players.
"It was strange the first day," Bailey said between practices. "But I looked on the side of me and I've got John Lynch [the five-time Pro Bowl safety signed by the Broncos after 11 seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers] beside me. It really feels strange for him, so I feel pretty good. . . . It feels so good to just come in here with a lot of good players around you, and you know it's a good system and a good organization. The track record is good. What more can you ask for out of a team?"
The Redskins were far from a model organization during his five seasons with them, shuffling players and coaches and regularly turning enormous expectations created by bold offseason moves into disappointing results. But as Bailey stood outside the Broncos' locker room and reflected on his Redskins tenure, he said he isn't bitter. If the Redskins had offered him the sort of contract he wanted, he said, he would have stayed. He remained willing to re-sign until the moment in mid-February they granted him permission to seek a trade, he said.
"There were good times," Bailey said. "I try to look at the positive parts of it. We had some great teams -- no, let me rephrase that -- we had some great players, but as a team we just couldn't get it done. That's disappointing looking back, but I'm not going to dwell on it. . . . I never wanted to be anywhere else until they gave me the right to get a trade. You have mixed emotions. You go back and forth. But I was willing to come back, just not with the money they were offering."
Even so, Bailey says he thinks the Broncos got the better of the trade, and says he thinks he will be the best cornerback in the league this season. "I've felt like the last two or three years, I was among the best," he said. "Hopefully this year I can take off from the rest."
The Broncos spent years searching for a cornerback who could blanket the sport's top receivers. "He's dominated his position for the last few years, and I expect him to continue that," said Denver's veteran wide receiver, Rod Smith. "Just like with me, nothing short of a Super Bowl is going to be good enough for him."
Said Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan: "The guy is a natural leader, a natural worker, even better than I thought he was. That's putting a lot of pressure on him. But I've been thoroughly impressed with the way he's handled himself, the way he's worked."
The Redskins-Bailey split, in retrospect, was ensured when Bailey and agent Jack Reale rejected a nine-year, $55 million contract proposal by the club last August that included $14.75 million in bonus money split between a signing bonus and an option bonus. Bailey and Reale thought they could do better, and Redskins officials were upset that Reale never made a counterproposal. They became increasingly convinced that being with the Redskins meant nothing to Bailey and that he just wanted to sell his services to the highest bidder.
Joe Gibbs called him after becoming the Redskins' coach in January, Bailey said, and the two planned to meet. But that meeting was canceled, he said, when the Redskins gave him permission to seek a trade. The Redskins only slightly increased their offer after the season -- "pretty much the same thing, just a little higher," he said -- and used their franchise-player tag to keep him off the free-agent market long enough to send him and a second-round draft choice to the Broncos for Portis, a two-time 1,500-yard rusher. Bailey signed a seven-year, $63 million deal with Denver that included an $18 million signing bonus.
"They said I was a fool for not taking it [the Redskins' offer], but I knew what I was doing," Bailey said. "I knew what I was capable of getting and what I was worth, so why would I take something below market value? That would make it worse for all the other corners around the league, so I've got to get what I'm worth."
The ceaseless change at Redskins Park wore on Bailey, 26, and he pointed out Wednesday that, while Redskins owner Daniel Snyder gave the approval to Bailey's first NFL contract shortly after purchasing the team, it was former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly (now the Houston Texans' GM) who drafted him.
"I can't be surprised," Bailey said of the Redskins' decision to let him go. "These guys didn't draft me. The guys who drafted me are in Houston. I never felt like I was one of theirs. They talked to you nicely, but who doesn't? . . . I think [Snyder] wants to win. He definitely has that drive to win. The problem is, he just needs to surround himself with people who have been successful. Will he let [Gibbs] do what he does? That's the key. . . .
"If [Gibbs] has the control that he wants, his direction -- then, well, he's always been successful. . . . You see guys floating in and out of the door every year. You let Brad Johnson go. You let Stephen Davis get away. These guys go on to win Super Bowls and lead their teams to Super Bowls. Those players could have done that in our system. But when you have new coaches come in every year, it's kind of hard to jell as a unit. We never did."
He acknowledges that he still is not fully healthy after shoulder and wrist injuries last season, but says he's close. The trade and his new contract have put him under intense scrutiny, but he said he doesn't feel any more pressure than usual. He says the Broncos came out ahead in the trade, in part because they used the second-round pick on tailback Tatum Bell and Shanahan always has been able to plug a new runner into his offense and remain successful.
"You're not going to find many backs like Clinton Portis," Bailey said. "If I would have gone anywhere else and they'd have told me they were trading a back like that for me, I wouldn't have done it. No way. If I was going to San Diego and they'd said they were trading LaDainian Tomlinson for me, I wouldn't have gone. But you look at the track record here, and they've always produced great backs. Not to take anything away from Clinton, but that's just the way it's been."