WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — The pads came on and the intensity level came up Sunday on day three of New Orleans Saints training camp.
With them came a predictable level of chippiness, pushing, shoving and banging if not outright tackling, which is still high on the list of forbidden activities this early in practice. Players can partake in skeet shooting and falconry when not focusing on football here at The Greenbrier resort, a bastion of cultured civility, but tackling to the ground remains a no no.
Given the circumstances, cornerback Champ Bailey could not have been surprised late in practice Sunday to find a stiff arm in his face from fullback Erik Lorig after he caught a pass.
Like Bailey, a recent arrival from the Denver Broncos, Lorig is a new acquisition from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s eager to prove his worth to his new club and preserve his reputation from the Saints’ NFC South rival as a tough football player. The quickest path to football respect is often a show of aggression.
Bailey had to appreciate that, but it doesn’t mean he has to like it. Or take it.
The result was the most spectacular play of this still young training camp, a play that shows the long spectacular Bailey has still got it after being unceremoniously dumped by Denver after an injury-plagued 2013 season.
“I kind of take it personal when a guy sticks his hand in my face,” Bailey said. “He tried to stiff arm me. I wasn’t going to hurt him. I don’t know why he did that. I had to make him pay somehow, so the best way is to get the ball from him.”
Bailey stripped the ball from Lorig’s grasp as he tumbled to the turf. Before it could touch the grass, safety Rafael Bush, no doubt with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s admonition to create more turnovers ringing in his ears, flashed in and tipped the ball back over Lorig to Bailey’s experienced hands.
“I didn’t expect that from him,” Bailey said. “I didn’t see him coming. All of a sudden, the ball is back in my face again. I just got my head up, caught it and got a turnover.”
Bush was the more amazing part of this dynamic defensive back duo, but it was Bailey who initiated the action.
It’s a vivid reminder of what his intentions are with the Saints.
After 15 seasons with the Broncos and Washington Redskins, Bailey cemented his place as one of the all-time greats at his position. One day, after he finally hangs up his helmet, he will be standing in Canton, Ohio, wearing a gold Hall of Fame jacket. And he probably won’t have to wait more than the requisite five years to do so.
But Bailey is determined to push his enshrinement date as far into the future as he can.
Some may have assumed Bailey came to New Orleans willing to serve as an elder statesman in some sort of supporting role after the way his tenure ended with the Broncos. Keenan Lewis has cornered the market on one cornerback spot, and the Saints have two high-quality returning candidates in Corey White and Patrick Robinson angling to start at the other.
But Bailey has made it clear that he still plans on being the leading man. He’ll help his teammates, yes. Mentor them. Encourage them.
But Bailey’s mantra is the best way to be an example is by doing.
Masters champion Bubba Watson, who played at Georgia the same time Bailey did, watched practice from the sideline Sunday.
Bailey is hardly in such a retiring mood. And he sure didn’t sound like he’s ready to take up golf.
“I will be a mentor to a lot of these guys,” Bailey said, cool mountain rain that rumbled through the mountains right at the end of practice beading on his face. “That’s a fact. But I’m definitely a part of this team, and I’m competing to get a spot on this roster as well.
“I do what I can to help them, but I’m also out here preparing to win this job.”
Eventually, The Greenbrier will boast not only a football practice facility but a world-class sports medicine center. Bailey said he doesn’t need it now, but the concern remains given his age (36) and the fact he missed 11 games with the Broncos in 2013 because of a worrisome foot injury.
But perhaps the change of scenery and a new challenge has rejuvenated Bailey and fortified his recuperative powers. Right now, he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I feel great,” Bailey said. “My foot feels better. Everything else is in place. I just need to keep it that way.”
And keep the younger cornerback rivals at a distance.
Perhaps a well-timed stiff arm would do the trick.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.