Manti Te’o's 4.82-second 40-yard dash at the NFL draft Combine is the latest installment of what has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad month for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker. The last two months have been a tailspin for Te’o.
SB Nation captured the NFL Network’s coverage of Te’o with the below GIF of Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, who rather accurately crystallizes popular opinion of Te’o at the moment.
Te’o's 2013 began with an atypical, awful showing in the BCS championship game against Alabama. The Heisman Trophy runner-up whiffed on several tackle attempts, making the wrong end of highlight reels and photo essays. His family blackballed The Honolulu Star Advertiser after an image of Eddie Lacy running over a downed Te’o was splashed across the newspaper’s front page following the title game.
The knee-jerk reaction to The Star Advertiser might have been a preemptive, yet futile measure against the impending firestorm. His involvement in an online dating hoax transcended sports coverage, leading news magazine broadcasts like 20/20 and making Te’o an unenviable household name as either a co-conspirator to drum up Heisman support — the original report’s insinuation — or a gullible mark.
Neither reflected well on Te’o, and has been a frequent topic of discussion among pundits and spectators theorizing on the linebacker’s draft stock. The draft Combine was to be his refuge — an outlet to remind the nation that he is indeed a great football player, the hoax was just that and a small blip on his life and he was ready for the next step.
Instead, the enduring image will be Harbaugh’s glum head shake, much as Lacy running Te’o over was the lasting memory of the BCS title game.
Te’o's outstanding 2012 season, and entire exemplary college career, are increasingly treated as afterthoughts. But as he descends into April’s NFL draft, it’s worth remembering why his plummet is so noteworthy in the first place.
Caught up as voters may have been in Te’o's story, there is no Heisman candidacy without him playing at a high level. Te’o led Notre Dame in tackling, as he had each of the previous two seasons. With seven interceptions, he was among the leaders in all of college football. The next most by a linebacker was Kiko Alonso’s four. His story might have been contrived, but there’s no fabricating on-field production.
And Te’o's production over four years dispels any notion he was a fluke: 437 tackles, 34 for loss; three seasons registering 113 tackles or more.
College success is hardly guaranteed to translate to the NFL. Where that the case, Brian Bosworth would have become a Hall of Famer. Te’o will see his draft stock slide, and rightfully so at this time. But four years equate to a much larger sample size than 4.82 seconds or two months. Pulling out of his current tailspin is certainly possible, his key is weathering the immediate storm. Let interest and scrutiny wane, which inevitably happens.
Culture is very much caught up in the moment, no matter the topic. Right now, Te’o can do nothing right in the eyes of some. His situation bears certain similarities to Matt Barkley’s, which I discussed over the weekend. Barkley enters the draft with a track record for success, but the enduring memory of him is going down in a heap after a two-interception, losing performance vs. UCLA.
Expectations on Barkley were ridiculously high; circumstances differed, but the same is true for Te’o. The higher the rise, the longer the fall.