JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- There is only one speed for Champ Bailey. His NFL accelerator remains pressed to the floor, the motor continues to rev. But the wheels? Well, lately, they don’t always comply.
So there may be a deeper appreciation of what this Super Bowl XLVIII trip is all about for Bailey. He worked 15 years to get a spot on the NFL’s ultimate stage, and rarely was he doing it in the shadows.
Most often, Bailey -– a 12-time Pro Bowler -- stole the limelight. Of late, he has seen that glare magnify a difficult 2013 season largely interrupted by a foot injury, and invite nagging questions about whether he can still keep pace with the NFL’s elite receivers.
For a dominant player widely regarded as the NFL’s best cover cornerback since he was drafted No. 7 overall in 1999, this has been his longest season and his most trying. Fortunately, Bailey – who missed 11 games and only worked himself back into the starting lineup after Chris Harris tore his ACL – has always been a pragmatist.
He watched others of his NFL generation reach Super Bowls with a mixture of appreciation and determination. My time will come, Bailey told himself.
"I'm a big fan of the game, and I don't like to lose, but I have found myself getting over it faster than most people because I can't dwell on the past,” said Bailey, a role model and spiritual leader for many of his NFL peers. “All I can do is just try to get better and give myself a better chance the next time. I don't really dislike it, it's just ... I deal with it.
“I enjoy the game. I always watch the game. I've just never been to one."
He got so tantalizingly close last year, and the near-miss was jarring. Matched against Ravens receiver Torrey Smith in the AFC divisional game in Denver, Bailey was simply overwhelmed. Smith burned him for two touchdowns and 98 receiving yards in Baltimore’s upset victory.
Suddenly, Bailey -- the Broncos’ signature player since he was traded to Denver from Washington in 2004 -- was mainstream, not magnificent. 2013 was his first NFL season without an interception. Everything seemed to unravel at once.
“Everybody's going to get beaten, everybody's going to have a bad game at some point," Bailey said of last season’s playoff loss. "I think that's what separates the pros from the guys that think they're pros. It's the guys that can forget about the bad things and just keep moving on.”
In the AFC Championship Game, Bailey’s unique instincts and talent helped limit Tom Brady and crush the New England Patriots’ quest for another Super Bowl title.
“Anytime you have a guy like that, a true pro, you want to win it for him,” said Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, so proud to be Bailey’s protégé.
“If you’re a cornerback in this league, I think you had to watch Champ Bailey and look up to him. And to see him go out on top, get to the Super Bowl, is just an honor.”
Talk to Bailey this week – who has locked down his words while he maintains focus -- and it’s apparent these days of Super Bowl hype before facing the Seahawks on Sunday at MetLife Stadium are interrupting the most important business trip of his life.
“I never thought there’d be a moment where I didn’t get back,” Bailey said Tuesday as he endured Media Day. “I knew I would heal and get back, I didn’t know when. It definitely took a lot longer than I expected. It worked out even better than I thought. I don’t think any guy on any roster is 100 percent, but my foot feels good enough to play, and I’m ready to go.”
Denver coach John Fox knows how hard Bailey has worked toward this opportunity.
“I know it’s been a frustrating season for Champ up until now or up until recently," Fox said. "He did have a foot injury. It did set him back. He spent many games inactive throughout the season, but he was always there. And in that defensive room, in that DB room, his guidance, his leadership was always there and that never wavered. He stayed positive.
“Sometimes that can be a tricky thing, when things aren’t going as planned, but he weathered it. He got himself back healthy. It was a lot of hard work on his part, as well as our training staff, and a lot of support from the coaching staff and his teammates.”
While Peyton Manning’s hunt for a second Super Bowl ring is a great story, Bailey’s odyssey toward his first makes him the sentimental favorite to lift a Lombardi Trophy over his head on Sunday.
“It might have been one of my fonder moments in coaching just watching him hoist that Lamar Hunt trophy there in Denver,” Fox said. “He’s been tremendous, and he’s a great player, a great person and I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Will Bailey call it a career if a Super Bowl championship is added to his resume?
“We’ll see,” he said, trying to brush aside that distracting thought. “I’m not really thinking about retiring if I win. All I’m thinking about is winning and doing what I’ve got to do to win the game. That’s my preparation this week.
“After the game, we’ll talk about that.”
Nancy Gay is the Senior Managing Editor for CSNBayArea and CSNCalifornia. Follow her on Twitter at @NancyGay.