For the first 14 years, that was because quarterbacks didn’t throw his way and there weren’t many plays to make.
For the last four months, it was because he was rarely on the field.
And nowhere among any of it is there a clip of him playing in a Super Bowl.
The Denver Broncos can help him change that Sunday. But if they beat the Patriots and Bailey finally makes it to the big show, he won’t consider himself having filled in the last missing piece of his resume, even if others will.
“I don’t worry about my legacy,” Bailey said. “All those things will take care of themselves.”
Essentially, they already have.
He’s a three-time, first-team Associated Press All-Pro, a 12-time Pro Bowl pick. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 2000s. Though he’s had fewer opportunities than most, his 52 interceptions are still fourth most over his 15 years in the league.
For all of that, he has earned the lasting respect of his peers and teammates.
“If you’re a cornerback, you have to be a fan of Champ Bailey,” said Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who starts at right corner for the Broncos. “Anytime a guy does that for a period of time he did it, 14 or 15 years, you’ve got to watch him.”
There hasn’t been much to watch this year. A lingering foot injury has limited his time in the lineup. Inactive for 11 games, mostly a bit player in the rest, frustrated through all of it.
“My most frustrating, probably because I’m living it right now,” he said when asked where this season ranks. “The only thing I care about now is I’m back on the field. I’m ready to go. I feel good.”
The timing is good. Bailey is needed as much as ever in the wake of the season-ending knee injury cornerback Chris Harris Jr. suffered last week. It figures to put Bailey in the mix more against New England, whether it be at starting left cornerback, or in the slot where he played last week against the Chargers.
Since he was chosen seventh in the 1999 draft by the Redskins, Bailey has been among that rare group — Ronnie Lott, Darrell Green, Deion Sanders — who quarterbacks simply avoid.
As the years have passed, quarterbacks have tested him more.
Last year, in the playoff game against Baltimore, Bailey got beaten twice for long touchdowns. The offseason talk centered on whether it was time for Bailey to slide gracefully over to the slot, or to safety. Before the injury, Bailey wasn’t ready to go there. Given the way this season has gone, and knowing he’s one win away from the Super Bowl, he’s willing to do whatever is needed.
“That’s the way I’ve played it since I came back from the injury,” Bailey said. “I don’t want to force anything. But I feel like I’m ready for whatever is thrown at me.”
The last time Bailey got this close to the Super Bowl was in the 2005 season. In the divisional playoff game, he intercepted Tom Brady and returned it 100 yards down the sideline. He got chased down a yard short of the touchdown. But it was a game-changing play and the Broncos won. They had home-field the next week and lost to Pittsburgh.
“It was disappointing at the time and frustrating,” Bailey said. “But that was eight years ago. It’s not like it was two years ago.”
Since then, Bailey and the Broncos have had their chances to part ways. They came closest after the 2010 season when the Broncos front office — in transition after the firing of Josh McDaniels — first made an offer, then withdrew it, and Bailey went as far as to put his house on the market.
Once Broncos executive vice president John Elway came in to run the personnel department, he didn’t think twice about keeping Bailey in Denver.
“Champ could still play, still can play,” Elway said in an interview last year. “The number-one domino, in my mind, was to get him back in.”
Two more wins might make this a perfect closing chapter for Bailey, who, at 35 and now coming off injury, will almost certainly have to accept a new role if he sticks around.
Or almost perfect.
Super Bowl or no, he knows this has not been the sort of season that fits a Hall of Famer’s resume.
“It’d be nice but you can’t take back what’s happened this year,” he said. “I’m living in the moment. You’ve just got to roll with the punches.”