No, Champ Bailey isn’t sucking

Yesterday me and the boys were kickin' it down at IAOFM headquarters (which is twice as cool as Kickin' It headquarters), when we received several emails linking us to a film review of Champ Bailey's subpar play from 2012.  The cat who wrote this piece, Uptown Murf, supposedly watched film of Bailey's 2012 play and came to the conclusion that Bailey is no longer a #1 corner:

For the 2012 season, Champ Bailey finished with 66 tackles, 2 Int’s, and 9 passes defensed. I give him a C for his overall play. He did some great things, and brings a tremendous amount of experience to the Broncos secondary. Unfortunately at this point in his career, (Based off 2012 film) I believe he’s no longer a number 1 corner. He doesn’t necessarily need to switch positions, but he should primarily face the #2 receiver on each team.

In order to provide proof of this conclusion, the article cut up several plays in which Bailey was toasted last year for long gains, including plays against Vincent Jackson, Andre Johnson, and A.J. Green.

Fortunately for Broncos fans, it's not true.

First, let me commend Murf for putting the piece together.  I know what it's like to spend hours watching tape, cutting up shots, and putting them down for analysis.  It takes effort, commitment, and it often generates fewer pageviews than simply dropping down two sentences about Tim Tebow. 

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's get something else out on the table. No one has any way of truly knowing what was going on in Bailey's mind on any one of these plays.  He could have been playing the opponent's tendencies from the previous 3-4 games off a scouting report--the type of thing that goes like this: the opponent's quarterback likes to go to the quick slant 60% of the time when facing third-and-less-than-five.  So we've got to give guys like Murf the license to speculate, otherwise, we'd never have anything to talk about (other than our buddy Tebow, of course).

Yet this kind of analysis tends to happen when evaluating cornerback play from watching replays of broadcast film.  It's the sort of conclusion that you'll often find in my Gut Reactions--the type of thing I do when I've only got one viewing under my belt.  That's because unless I watch every single snap from the coaches film and pair the secondary coverage with the scheme of the front seven, I'm left to evaluate the mechanics of corner play in a bit of a vacuum.  This is further complicated by the fact that replays of one-one-one matchups between cornerbacks and wideouts are typically a focus only on--you guessed it--big gains.

Analysis like this also appears every year Bailey gives up several high-profile touchdowns.  Remember 2004?  That's the year Bailey gave up huge touchdowns to Jerry Porter and Chad Johnson.  It's also the first time you heard Champ Bailey had lost a step--something we've been hearing now for nine years.

To counter analysis like this, it would be rather easy to find five plays in which Bailey played perfect coverage.  I could cut them up to prove that that Bailey is, in fact, a #1 corner, and can play all types of coverage (slot, off man, press man, and zone).  Yet it would simply be tit for tat--a sort of hindsight bias in which one chooses five plays from a season of hundreds to prove a point.

And it's not really necessary.  What's necessary is to recognize what type of cornerback Bailey is.  Serious Broncos fans who have watched Bailey since he arrived here have always known Bailey is his best when he's playing off man coverage--in fact, it's his preferred style.  This doesn't mean that he can't play another style.  In fact, the beauty of a guy like Champ Bailey is precisely the opposite: he can play multiple styles in multiple schemes, while occasionally playing on his own island without safety help.  It's something I think Murf seems to have overlooked when he analyzed A.J. Green's touchdown on Bailey last year:

Here is the most puzzling play that I studied of Champ the whole year. Champ is given his outrageous cushion against a 6’4 – A.J. Green who is one of the best redzone threats in the league. If they throw a quick pass to Green – he’s a threat to muscle his way past Bailey. If they throw a jump ball to Green, it’s curtains – as I don’t think a corner in the league can outjump him. Bailey should be in his face pressing him from the word go. If Bailey does have an advantage, it’s that he’s clearly stronger than a thinner A.J. Green. 

Here is the image (via Nflsfuture):

Murf is shocked by the amount of cushion Bailey is giving Green--the implication being that Champ is somehow trying to compensate for his diminishing skills.  And given the result of the play (again, with a healthy dose of hindsight bias and a damn near perfect throw by Andy Dalton), it's easy to make statements like, "Champ should have done this," but the fact is simply that Champ Bailey is playing typical off man coverage here--inside leverage, seven yards off the line of scrimmage, eyes in the backfield trying to pick up a read on the quarterback.  He wants to cut off Green to the inside and prevent him from working over the middle of the field on the slant or deeper still over the middle in the end zone. 

It's basic stuff, really.  Don't believe me?  Here, let Nnamdi Asomugha demonstrate the technique on the practice field:

This technique is very common in the red zone, and it surprises me that Murf claims Champ's use of it to be his most disturbing play of 2012.

Here's another clip of Darrelle Revis playing the same technique. Watch him here in one-on-one drills at the 0:23 mark, the 5:05 mark (where he gets beat to the outside), and the 8:25 mark:

Notice where they are setting up this situational drill?  That's right, in the red zone--specifically around the 10-yard line.

Again, what Bailey is trying to do with this technique is read and react and stop the receiver from working over the middle of the field where the receiver has even more room in which to work.  It's not a technique he's playing out of fear; further, it's a technique he has used for years.  It's not something he's doing to protect himself from his own diminished skills.  If anything, it shows Bailey's (and the coaching staff's) confidence because he thinks he can get to Green's break shoulder and make the play.

Murf makes the point in his article to mention that Champ isn't as fast as he once was and he's not, but that's not news, and I doubt anyone would debate it.  Still, he's hardly a #2 corner.  Murf closes with the following points:

So is he overrated? Yes he is.

He should not be mentioned alongside a healthy Darrelle Revis, who is the best doing it these days, nor any of the next group of guys. (i.e. Antonio Cromartie, Richard Sherman, Brandon Flowers, Joe Haden etc) He’s what I would call an upper-middle tier player based on 2012 film. But he’s still Champ Bailey – so he demands a ton of respect out there between those lines. And much props to him for shadowing the best receiving threat on each team.

Here is where I actually agree with Murf in general.  Champ is overrated--when you judge him in the context as a shutdown corner.  Most people want to mistakenly refer to Bailey as a shutdown corner, or at least judge him in this context.  A shutdown corner is what you see on the video of Revis: someone who constantly plays trail coverage and has an unrelenting confidence in his ability to shadow a receiver at the hip and recover on the ball.  Champ probably does true trail coverage five or six times a game.

Despite this, Bailey is still an elite corner at this stage of his career.  What I mean by this is that he plays a variety of coverages and he plays them very well.  On one play you'll see him play in the slot.  The next you might see him play some press boundary on the outside, in which the goal is to use the sideline to your advantage.  Then later you'll find him playing off man, which is where he's excelled because of his ability to react to what's going on in front of him.  It's also why he's been a great run supporter over his career.

To reiterate, where I believe Murf has gone wrong is his misunderstanding of Bailey's role.  As Andy Benoit (Football Outsiders) writes:

The takeaway here is that not all highly-regarded cornerbacks are equal. It’s very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to find statistics that accurately portray a corner’s true value. There are just too many variables in the actual playing style that can't be properly expressed through numbers, so any advanced metrics need to be seen in context. [Asante] Samuel has been to four Pro Bowls; [Ike] Taylor has been to none. Samuel is the more dangerous player, but Taylor has allowed his team to do more schematically. It's my guess that most coaches would rather have Taylor than Samuel. When evaluating cornerbacks, instead of focusing simply on how the guy is playing, focus on how he is being used. That will tell you a lot about him.

While Benoit's statement refers to stats, it's also true regarding watching game tape in a vacuum.  A few replays here and there are dangerous foundations upon which to judge a cornerback whose job is to take on the best receivers in the game, week-in and week-out, not just as a press man player, but as part of a scheme of players.  Once you do this, you quickly lose your attachment to one or two plays (the Baltimore playoff game, for instance) and judge Bailey by what he's done (or has allowed the Broncos to do schematically) throughout the year. 

Right now in the NFL there are no true shutdown corners in the mold of Darrelle Revis, and depending on whether he's healthy, Revis may not approach this level again.  It's time we all recognize that holding elite cornerbacks like Bailey up to that standard says less about the facts of today's NFL, in which no cornerback can consistently shut down a quality wide receiver without drawing a flag, and far more about our own false expectations of what cornerbacks actually do.  In Bailey's case, he's as valuable to the Broncos as he's ever been. 

I’m glad we had this talk.  Now, vaya con Dios, Brah.

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