DENVER – The Clinton Portis-Champ Bailey trade was unlike any other in the previous 30 years of the NFL; when it went down, it was the first swap of players from the previous season’s Pro Bowl since the Rams and Chargers exchanged defensive end Coy Bacon for quarterback John Hadl in 1973.
Seven years later, with the Redskins cutting Clinton Portis, a final judgment can be made: the Broncos won the deal.
The Redskins received a very good running back who had some outstanding years in between. The Broncos got a cornerback who, if not the best to ever play his position, is firmly in the conversation with a more Pro Bowls as a cornerback than anyone else.
Granted, the Broncos’ performance the last four years has been anything but stellar, with a 27-37 record and no winning seasons representing their worst run since the Lou Saban era. But Bailey’s performances were often like a rose blooming from scorched, barren earth, never moreso than when he shut out Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe during the Broncos’ 10-6 loss at Kansas City in Week 13, a game which turned out to be Josh McDaniels’ last as Broncos head coach.
Bailey’s decision last week to remain with the Broncos only validates his value. The potential $43-million, four-year contract is likely less than the still elite-cornerback would have received on the open market, and the contract length and his overall good health indicates that he is in the Broncos’ plans for the entire length of their upcoming rebuilding process, which is likely to require mulitple years and could be further complicated and delayed by a lengthy labor impasse.
In other words, Bailey is an enduring enough player to bridge two eras — the last successful Mike Shanahan years of 2000-05, when he helped the Broncos defense become one of the league’s best while playing an MVP-caliber season in 2005, and whatever comes next under Fox.
If the new Broncos coach can repeat the turnaround touch he showed with Carolina in 2002-03, then Bailey will occupy the same kind of place in Broncos history that long-term defenders like Louis Wright and Tom Jackson enjoyed; both bridged the gap and contributed to two successful eras — the Orange Crush of the mid-to-late 1970′s and the Elway-driven Dan Reeves conference champions of the 1980′s.
It’s doubtful Portis could have had that same kind of importance had the Broncos chosen to re-sign him. In 2004 and 2005, the team received comparable rushing performances from a combination of Reuben Droughns, Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell. Bell was the second-round throw-in pick for the Broncos in the Bailey deal, only enhancing the haul from the trade.
The Broncos’ running game was only marginally affected in the wake of the trade; there wasn’t a true drop-off between what Portis did in Washington (or would have done in Denver) and what the Broncos produced until 2007-08, when injuries and fumbling issues meant the team ran through running backs as though they were toilet paper.
Their defensive backfield, meanwhile, was massively upgraded; the jump from a motley group of cornerbacks led by Kelly Herndon and Lenny Walls in 2003 to the Bailey-paced group in 2004 and beyond was profound.
Portis, like many running backs who manage to last nine or more seasons, has been punished. His blinding speed and dazzling moves of 2002 and 2003 in Denver are gone, and have been for some time as he managed to transition into a capable power runner. That evolution allowed him to pick up 2,749 yards and 20 touchdowns in the 2007-08 seasons, which, not coincidentally, were the only times in the last five years that the Redskins didn’t post losing seasons.
The Broncos made many questionable moves to get to the place they sit today, beginning with the free-agency acquisition of Dale Carter in 1999, just months after winning a second consecutive Super Bowl.
But without Bailey and his profound value to the organization, their situation would have been — and today would be — far worse.