There are overcast skies across the Denver metropolitan area Thursday.
Champ Bailey is no longer a Bronco.
The team announced Thursday it had officially released Bailey, ending his 10-year run as a shutdown left cornerback. Whether Broncos fans agree or disagree with the decision, saying goodbye to the player everyone knew simply as "Champ" is a sad moment.
"This was a difficult decision for our team with everything that Champ Bailey has meant to the Denver Broncos and this community over the last 10 years," Broncos general manager John Elway said in a statement. "Without question, he's among the best cornerbacks to ever play the game and one of the finest players in the history of the Broncos. You couldn't ask for more in a player than what Champ brought to this team. His combination of elite talent, class, leadership and competitiveness made him one of the all-time greats."
How good a player was Bailey? He has been named to 12 Pro Bowls, when Hall of Fame safety Ken Houston has the next most among NFL defensive backs with 10. Bailey earned eight of those Pro Bowls in 10 seasons with the Broncos, the most recent coming in 2012.
However, a preseason foot injury made 2013 the personal worst year of Bailey's career. He did recover in time to play in the first Super Bowl of his career, but that ended poorly, too, as the Broncos were shellacked by the Seattle Seahawks, 43-8.
Instead of reducing the final year of Bailey's contract — which included a $1 million roster bonus, $9 million salary and $500,000 workout bonus — the team decided to say goodbye.
There is no good way to let go of a superstar but isn't there greater dignity in a clean release than a pay cut?
"I consider it a privilege to have coached Champ these last three years," coach John Fox said in the team's press release. "I thank him and truly appreciate everything he did for our team. There's no doubt he played an integral role in establishing a culture of winning here."
Acquired, along with a second-round draft pick that turned out to be Tatum Bell, in a 2004 blockbuster trade that sent star running back Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins, Bailey's best seasons were in 2005 and 2006, when he combined for 19 interceptions and an astounding 401 interception return yards. That included a memorable, 100-yard interception against Tom Brady in an AFC second-round playoff game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
After those two seasons, teams avoided Bailey's side of the field and he remained a shutdown corner through the 2012 regular season. But then he got beat on two long touchdown plays by Baltimore receiver Torrey Smith in a second-round playoff game last year. And the sprained Lisfranc injury on his left foot this past season forced him to miss 11 games.
"It's unfortunate frankly that he tried to play hurt this year," said Bailey's agent Jack Reale. "Because most people with that injury would wind up on IR (injured reserve). But he felt this was a year they were going to go to the Super Bowl, and he was dadgum if he was going to watch that game from the press box or sidelines.
"So he tried to get it done. And unfortunately everybody wants to judge him based on playing hurt. Which is how it goes in the league. Rarely, if ever do you get an 'attaboy' if you don't play as well hurt as you do when you're healthy."
The Broncos are expected to make a determined attempt to re-sign cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, hope Chris Harris recovers well from a partially torn ACL and Kayvon Webster makes a quantum development leap in his second season.
The team is also expected to acquire at least one cornerback from the free-agent market that opens Tuesday and another through the draft that begins May 8.
Bailey, meanwhile, is a free agent who will seek employment with another team. Bailey has indicated he wants to play not just next season, but two or three more years if his body holds up.
"On behalf of everyone with the Broncos, I wish Champ all the best and thank him for everything he did for this franchise," Elway said in a statement. "Champ will always be a Bronco. We look forward to his Ring of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame election in the years ahead."