Whether you want it or not, here it is: the last Manti Te'o scouting report/thought piece you will ever need, with special guest appearances by Kevin Minter and the Crimson Tide offense.
Mister Fantastic and the Invisible Woman
So, what exactly was all that?
Did we ever get the thing with the fake dead girlfriend and the Tuiasosopo guy sorted out? Not quite. Did we figure out that it was never any of our business?
Oh, we are miles past the TE'O LIED TO AMERICA TO TRY TO WIN THE HEISMAN angle, a truther theory that assumed that sportswriters are a) important enough to lie to and b) naïve enough to base "best player" awards on feel-good stories. Actually, that second assumption will not make an ass out of you, only me. The Te'o Truthers have taken their HE TOLD ESPN "X" WHEN HE ALREADY KNEW "Y" conspiracy musings into dark corners of the Internet. They will resurface on the message boards of whatever team drafts Te'o, but they are a webmaster's problem, not a front office problem.
Have we figured out how little teams care about this? Sure, Te'o's story merited a full investigation by every snoop on an NFL payroll who wasn't interviewing the convenience store clerks who sold EZ Widers within a mile of the LSU dormitories. The professionals who run background checks for NFL teams are used to determining if a kid is addicted to powdered rhinoceros horn or if the incident where he smashed a grapefruit into a coed's face was a sign of a deeper-seeded problem. Cyber-romance with a dude pretending to be a long-distance girlfriend, or something like that? Shrug.
Perhaps the Te'o weariness that set in soon after the combine was a recognition, for the first time since the invention of the Internet, that we are not supposed to know every single detail of everything that happened to everyone, ever.
The whole Te'o saga reminded me of my early teaching days, when I might intercept notes passed in class or find a private missive carelessly left on the floor. Savvy teachers will tell you that you never read the note, because it contains nothing you want to know. At best, it is calling you a poopy-head. More likely, it is providing information which will ruin your day by filling your mind with private, often yucky information: what exactly went on at Jordan's Saturday night party while her folks were in Cabo; the precise reasons Cameron broke up with Ashleigh, which involve her cousin and three verbs unfamiliar to you, but if they mean what you think they mean you will never be able to look Cameron or Ashleigh in the eyes again. The note must be immediately torn to shreds and thrown deep into the wastebasket, in front of the class, making it obvious to everyone that you are unaware of its contents. The intimate details of the adolescent personal life are never, ever fit for public consumption. And adolescence lasts through college.
Kids stopped passing notes and started texting, sexting and doing whatever the hell Tuiasosopo liked to do around 2004. That's when we started worrying about cyberbullying and about private correspondence getting leaked, not to 22 kids in algebra class, but to a few million YouTube viewers. The behavior of young people has not changed that much, but their ability to embarrass themselves with it has gone global. We're still learning when to intervene, and how: The dangerous and humiliating must be stopped, the awkward and goofy is best politely ignored. When in doubt, we should strive to react with more maturity than the individuals involved in the red-cup pictures/drunken tweets/fake girlfriend scandal. I think the media flunked that test with Te'o, and that anyone who condemns the kid on the grounds of naiveté needs to take a long look at their Facebook feed from the last 10 days.
The Wince of Tides
If you missed the BCS championship game, have forgotten it or stopped paying attention when things got out of hand early in the second quarter, you do not have to re-watch the whole game to experience the director's cut of "Te'o: The Humbling." The great open-sorcerers of the Internet uploaded a cut-up of every Te'o play onto YouTube. There is even a helpful box around Te'o before each snap, though the box looks like it is trying to slink away from him after a few minutes.
The BCS championship Te'o blooper reel is the stuff doubts are made of. Chance Warmack does things to him that a polar bear does to a harp seal. But it isn't just Warmack, a likely top-20 pick on Thursday. Watch the tape and you will see Anthony Steen steenroll Te'o a few times. Steen will be an NFL prospect next year, but he is not Warmack. Fullback Kelly Johnson bounces Te'o out of a hole on an "Iso" run up the middle. Johnson's a fine blocker, but he's the kind of role player a Heisman candidate/early round pick should win battles against.
As a general rule in the Alabama video, Te'o is blocked. When he is not blocked, he dives at Eddie Lacy's feet or lets Lacy tear through an arm tackle, or gets juked by T.J. Yeldon for variety. Every once in a while, Te'o picks the wrong hole, gets tied up in the "trash" at the line of scrimmage, or gets caught in the no-man's land between plunging into a goal-line pile and covering the tight end, accomplishing neither. It is ugly stuff.
But he was facing an NFL-caliber offensive line in that game. Yes. That's kind of what we expect him to do in 20 weeks or so, right?
He was distracted by the scandal. Possibly, though Chance Warmack's knuckles digging into his sternum probably made it easier to block out his other worries for a while. Also, NFL players tend to be beset by distractions. Everyone on that field was affected by the championship hype, the seven weeks or so since they last played, and so on.
The biggest problem with the BCS game for Te'o, once you compartmentalize the scandal, is that Te'o squandered an opportunity to demonstrate that he can be an in-the-box run masher in the NFL. Teams knew before December that Te'o was not Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher, the middle linebacker who can have an impact on both first-and-10 and third-and-15. They were looking for a gap stuffer who might leave the field (or play defensive end) on passing downs but can keep the 49ers or Texans from running downhill for four quarters. Te'o might be that player, but he sure did not look like it against the kind of run-oriented team he will be expected to do well against.
Searching for silver lining in that BCS game replay, you may come across a run by Yeldon with 3:19 to play in the third quarter and Alabama leading 35-7. (It is at about 6:25 on that YouTube clip).) Te'o repeatedly nudges teammate Dan Fox to slide to his left; the Tide appear to be about to run to their right (Fox's left), the Irish line has shifted to match their formation and Fox is in the wrong gap. Fox doesn't adjust, Yeldon runs right into the gap Te'o was pointing to, the D-line gets Flukered, Fox gets blocked and Yeldon runs for (let's estimate) another eight trillion yards before Te'o pushes him out of bounds.
That play reminds us that Jan. 7 was a long night for everyone wearing a gold helmet, not just Manti Te'o. It also shows Te'o, the alert captain, recognizing an opponent's tendency and trying to line up his teammates, even though everyone on the left side of the Irish defense appears to be suffering Post Fluker Stress Disorder at that point in the game. Middle linebackers are expected to call signals and make adjustments. Te'o earned high grades in these areas during most of his college career, and it was encouraging to see him flash those skills, even though everything else around him was falling apart at that particular moment in history.
How can he be this "intelligent leader" and still be involved in such a ridiculous scandal? If you saw how your tax accountant acts at a Jimmy Buffet show, you would buy a dozen backup copies of Turbo Tax. Street smarts, book smarts, field smarts, relationship smarts and smart-smarts are not always directly related.
Kevin Minter and the Roll of the Tide
A game as bad as the BCS championship can take on a life of its own. If you never focused on the middle linebacker for a whole football game before, then watched Te'o against Alabama, you might conclude that you were watching not just a bad game, but an unfolding catastrophe.
For the sake of comparison, and to cover a little extra pre-draft ground, let's examine Kevin Minter's performance against the same Alabama offense last year. Here's a cut-up by the same fine folks who assembled the Te'o video.
Minter and Te'o were considered the two best middle linebacker prospects in the nation when the college regular season ended. Now, most scouts and draftniks rank Minter ahead of Te'o, including me. Against Alabama, you can see Minter coping with some of the same problems Te'o faced. There's a lot of WARMACK SMASH PUNY TIGERS plays, plus some runs where Lacy proved too strong or Yeldon too quick for Minter to tackle when he could not get a square lick on them. But there are also flashes of very solid play which are easy to spot on the cut-up:
At 19 seconds, Minter demonstrates good short zone coverage technique and quickness when breaking up a pass to the tight end.
At 43 seconds, Minter fights through a block by Barrett Jones to pursue Lacy and make a tackle. This is not an elite play by any means, but an example of the ordinary "linebacker stuff" Te'o could not handle against Alabama.
At 4:28, Minter sifts through two blocks to make an ankle tackle on Yeldon.
At 4:50, Minter sniffs out a screen to Lacy and would be in good position to stuff the play, but Warmack commits a blatant open-field hold.
At 6:09, Minter adjusts quickly after play-action and goes from run defender to pass rusher, chasing A.J. McCarron and forcing a wild throw.
Just after the McCarron hurry, watch Minter on two straight plays use spin moves to escape Steen, then Warmack. He doesn't make a tackle on either play, but it's an example of how a linebacker can "stay alive" despite getting blocked on the second level by a top-notch guard.
There is also a near interception of a deflected pass and some routine clean-up tackles. Most defensive players are blocked or out of the action on most plays; watching game tape of defensive prospects involves lots and lots of scrutiny of how they engage blockers, "shed" them, how they react to counters-screens-draws-play action and other efforts that do not result in a tackle. The "flash plays" Minter makes against Alabama are what you look for when evaluating a top defensive prospect against championship-caliber competition: Mixed in with all of the nuts and bolts must be some plays where athleticism, alertness, strength or tenacity stand out. Minter is not exceptionally strong, but he had athletic and alert covered against the greatest non-NFL football team on earth. Te'o did not show much of anything.
But Alabama is only one opponent. Te'o faced other offenses and usually looked good. Often he looked great. Before we bury him, we need to remind ourselves why he came to be a subject of discussion in the first place.
When Mighty Te'o Roamed the Nation
Here's one more cut-up to look through: Te'o against Michigan State in September. The Spartans represent decent competition level: they were ranked at this point in the season, and they featured a top running back prospect in Le'Veon Bell. Te'o's looks like a completely different football player in this game than the guy who flailed around against the Tide. A breakdown of the tape highlights:
At 15 seconds, Te'o breaks up a pass: He arrives a second too soon, but there is no penalty because the pass is deflected. Almost immediately, we see a more instinctive player than the guy we saw against Alabama.
At 53 seconds, Te'o fights off a block from Michigan State center Travis Jackson and gets involved in a tackle on Le'Veon Bell. At 1:23, Te'o runs through Jackson's block and tackles Bell. An aggressive play.
At 1:33, Te'o adjusts quickly to a play-action rollout and makes a very solid open field wrap tackle before the first down marker.
At 2:04, Te'o stacks up Jackson near the line of scrimmage and wraps Bell. On the next play, he fends off a block by 285-pound tight end Dion Sims (a late-round NFL prospect) and makes another tackle.
At 2:54, Te'o shoots a gap and stuffs Bell in the backfield. An excellent play. Note on the replay how Te'o strafes between blockers and "breaks down," with his legs and arms spread, before making the tackle on a very tough running back. It's an up-close example of sound tackling fundamentals.
At 3:20, good hustle on a clean-up tackle after a teammate's mistake in the open field. Te'o gets completely juked by receiver Donnie Fowler on the next play; again, this is not a highlight reel, but an example of what a middle linebacker having a very good game looks like.
At 4:20, Te'o shows good zone coverage awareness. He lines up "in space" on the same side of the field as three receivers, lets them run through his zone, recognizes that Sims is running a drag route in his direction, reacts as the ball is thrown, and stops Sims for a minimal gain.
At 4:50, another pass breakup.
The game ends with a weird fumble recovery by Te'o: A Spartans player tosses the ball away while running out of bounds and it lands in Te'o's belly somehow. On the stat sheet, a fumble recovery looks significant, but it's the least interesting thing Te'o does against Michigan State.
Michigan State Te'o is the Te'o teams want: the fundamentally sound tackler, the smart short-zone defender, the guy who takes on blockers and sometimes bursts through the line for a big play. Watch more Te'o cut-ups -- there are tons of them -- and you see Michigan State Te'o far more often than Alabama Te'o. But, in all fairness, Alabama Te'o shows up in some non-Alabama circumstances, and neither Ray Lewis nor Brian Urlacher suddenly appears anywhere.
Want to work in an NFL front office? Get ready to watch dozens of cut-ups like those, except: a) they will be all-22 footage supplied by the colleges, so the players will be blurry blobs, and b) it won't be of a famous guy like Manti Te'o but of someone like Jordan Campbell from New Mexico Highlands. Fun stuff, and it all comes down to subjective interpretation. Counting the number of blocks Te'o sheds per game misses the point when some are Warmack blocks, some are Jackson blocks and some are Random Midshipman blocks. Scouts watch carefully, get their impressions, and recognize that the next scout got different impressions. The cut-ups can help you make yours. Here are mine.
First, Te'o looks like an inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense to me. The 3-4 inside linebacker does not have to worry about covering a lot of ground. His primary responsibilities are handling the inside run gaps, covering short zones in the middle of the field, covering running backs on pass routes now and then, and contributing to blitz packages. Te'o can handle those chores well enough; to rate as an outstanding prospect in this role, he needed to show a more consistent ability to take on top-caliber centers and guards.
Second, Te'o is a low-risk, low-ceiling prospect. The catfish controversy made Te'o look like some kind of boom-or-bust character. That is not the case at all. At worst, he will be a thick inside linebacker who can make adjustments and get the job done between the tackles. At best, however, he's a system guy who racks up 100 tackles in a season but grabs a Gatorade on third-and-long. Te'o lacks the pure speed and quickness to be a factor on passing downs, and he lacks the explosive power to be a superstar run defender, if such a thing as a superstar run defender still exists.
Third, the Vikings' interest in Te'o appears to be real. They have two first-round picks, and grabbing Te'o as the second first-rounder makes sense. Think about it: By the 25th selection, all of the "sure things" are gone, and introducing him as the other first-round pick will take away some of the harsher elements of the spotlight. Leslie Frazier's 4-3 defense is relatively old fashioned, so there is still a role for a run thumper in the middle or on the strong side. The Vikings used a 270-pound moose named Jasper Brinkley as their middle linebacker last year. Brinkley is a decent player; Te'o has the potential to be better.
Finally, we will all forget all of this by January. Te'o will settle in to a role as a rookie. The local beat writers will chart his progress, but the rest of us will move on to bigger stories. He will emerge as a starter, play for a few years, and become just another linebacker. How many linebackers do you think about on a daily basis?
Seven years from now, he will make a tackle in some playoff game, and you will get mixed up when you try to remember what made him so famous. Was he the guy that failed all the marijuana tests? No? Was it a Twitter war with Richard Sherman? No? "Dancing with the Stars"? Hmmm … oh yeah, he had an imaginary girlfriend. It was a practical joke, or a scam, or some bit of privacy made public, or something. What exactly was all that? Why did we think it was our business? And why the hell did we care?