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Trading Bailey would leave big hole

Move for Portis would carry several risks for Redskins
Champ Bailey
Champ Bailey is a premier defender, and he's worth more than a running back in return in a trade, Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon says.Greg Fiume / Getty Images file

Sometimes we give a trade higher marks because of who makes it. Just last week, the Detroit Pistons acquired the incorrigible Rasheed Wallace. A lot of executives and coaches would have been skewered for picking up Wallace, but because Joe Dumars and Larry Brown made the deal, we give it a longer look and consider why it could work, maybe even should work.

Now we have the possibility of the Washington Redskins sending Champ Bailey and a second-round draft pick to the Denver Broncos for Clinton Portis.

First, it's not every day we see NFL teams swap players in the primes of their careers. Bailey, who has been to four Pro Bowls in five seasons, is still just 25. Even crazier is that Portis, who has rushed for 1,508 and 1,591 yards in his first two seasons, will be only 23 when the 2004 season starts. He's already scored 29 touchdowns.

In most quarters around here the deal is being applauded because the Redskins are going to wave bye-bye to Bailey regardless, and at least this scenario brings in return a stud of a running back, which is an essential ingredient for any team that's going to be coached by Joe Gibbs. We know Gibbs has a master plan. We know he knows how he plans to play, that he's going to run the ball, that he's going to have a great offensive line, that he prefers a veteran quarterback, that he's going to find tight ends who can block.

We also know that Gibbs and longtime GM Bobby Beathard were able to put together teams very, very quickly, like the strike replacement team of 1987. Yes, Beathard was a big part of that partnership, but Gibbs has the eye of a jeweler, too. And because he's a man who coached a team to three Super Bowl victories, because he went to four Super Bowls with three quarterbacks and three running backs, even the harshest critics look at the moves Gibbs is making and say, "Makes sense to me." Gibbs, while he has never been a general manager, nonetheless has earned every benefit of the doubt in almost every football matter.

But if Gibbs wasn't the author of these deals, we might have a slightly different take because there are risks involved, first with the trade for Mark Brunell and now with this proposed deal with the Broncos.

Start with this: A great cornerback is probably harder to find than a great running back. The Broncos, for example, find great runners every time one of their scouts leaves the house. Terrell Davis, who is perhaps a Hall of Famer, has hardly been missed because Olandis Gary rushed for 1,159 yards in only 12 games in 1999, because somebody named Mike Anderson (a sixth-round pick) rushed for 1,487 yards in 2000, and because Portis was drafted in the second round out of Miami and beat both of them out of a job in 2002.

Now, Denver is ready to show Portis the door and go with second-year running back Quentin Griffin, who lit it up when Portis missed the final two games of last season.

Nobody finds cornerbacks like that. Nobody. The Broncos are taking their best corner from two seasons ago, Deltha O'Neal, and moving him to wide receiver. The Patriots had no great runner but three terrific defensive backs and put together a defense that threw shutouts and was worthy of the Super Bowl.

All this is to say that even though Bailey slipped last year, even though he got beat more times than we are accustomed to seeing, and even though Fred Smoot had a better year, Bailey is incredibly valuable. Part of his slippage probably had to do with a below-average pass rush and having his fifth defensive coach in his five-year career.

A very smart football man I know, who is also given to endorsing the deal because he respects Gibbs so much, reminded me yesterday that the NFL Gibbs left isn't the NFL to which he returns. Gibbs may choose to run the ball and have his tight ends block, but that doesn't mean he'll be facing coaches with similar philosophies. The NFL is much more pass-oriented now than it was even 10 years ago. He'll be facing many more three- and four-receiver sets, which require having at least one shut-down cornerback, preferably two. The Redskins' pass defense ranked 14th last year, and it's difficult to figure that it will help the defense to lose Bailey.

So, there is a downside to dealing him. And it also seems a bit over-the-top to deal Bailey and a second-round draft pick. That's steep. A pick that high should be starting in the league sometime his rookie season.

You can get a lead running back in the second round. Remember, Portis was drafted in the second round. Maurice Clarett, we're constantly told, could fall to the second round.

Trading two starters (Bailey and the pick) for one could be risky, too, unless Portis turns out to be the best back in the league, which is possible. Already, he's probably one of the five best backs in the league. I'd put Priest Holmes, Jamal Lewis and LaDanian Tomlinson ahead of Portis, but probably not anybody else.

At 5 feet 11, 205 pounds, he doesn't remind you of John Riggins or Gerald Riggs, but more perhaps of Earnest Byner, but faster. Byner was one of Gibbs's favorites, but he didn't bounce outside and take it 60 and 65 yards the way Portis does. At 5.5 yards per rush, Portis is up there in Jim Brown and Eric Dickerson territory. And it bears repeating that he will be 23 on Sept. 1 . And while the Broncos' line is to be praised for helping him gain much of that yardage, it's not like the Redskins are going to have a shabby line under Gibbs and Joe Bugel.

If this trade happens, the only thing we'll know immediately is that it'll be a fascinating deal, one that forces both teams to agonize over what they're giving up, one that has apparent risk and reward for both. And around here at least, Gibbs will be well on his way toward putting together the kind of team he's comfortable coaching, one that might very well make it worth the price of doing business.