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Labriola on the Combine

Posted Feb 24, 2013


INDIANAPOLIS – All that was missing really, was the calliope music.

The 2013 version of the NFL Scouting Combine got to the on-field drills stage yesterday, but under the big top it was Manti Te’o taking the podium in the media room. Televised live, too, and with over 80 percent of the attendant media hanging on every word, or at least looking for a spot near the speakers where you had a chance to hear his voice.

Judy Battista works for The New York Times, she is a respected reporter and covers every meaningful NFL event on the entire calendar. Everybody in the league takes her calls. Her editors had her staking out a spot in the front row for hours before Te’o was anywhere close. Gil Brandt of NFL.com was tweeting the ETA. First, it was supposed to be around noon. Then, a part of his medical evaluation was holding things up and it was going to be around 3 p.m. But when it was over and Te’o had been whisked away after yet another installment of his 15 minutes of fame, it was shortly after 2 p.m.

That chronology, as boring as it is, really is all that can be said about Te’o’s session with the media at the Combine. The second question was about the imaginary girlfriend, and his answer was some version of: "I’ve said all I’m going to say about that." The rest of it was about football-related issues, and Te’o handled all of that in a most vanilla way. The people running Team Te’o right now can call it a win.

But this is what the Te’o situation comes down to for me: It’s been documented that Alabama handled him in the BCS National Championship Game, but he didn’t exactly show up on any Notre Dame highlights from the Pitt game either. Finishing second in the Heisman voting is less than meaningless to an NFL team, and so at what point do you pull the trigger and draft a guy who made some plays but was less than dynamic against some much lesser competition than he’ll see in the NFL, and who will come to you as a full-fledged Entertainment Tonight celebrity complete with paparazzi, I’ll bet. Te’o is good enough to play in the NFL, but if I’m drafting I would think it would be a lot safer if it were somewhere else.

* The City of Indianapolis should be on the regular rotation as a Super Bowl site. Everything is centrally located, lots of hotel rooms, Lucas Oil Field is within walking distance. Friendly, helpful people. And the hotels and the Convention Center and Lucas Oil Field all can be reached on foot without having to go outside. Then there’s also this: an ice storm hit Indianapolis on Thursday night; before 9 a.m. Friday the streets and sidewalks were cleared of ice. Paying attention, Fort Worth?

* The Steelers are really under the radar here, with General Manager Kevin Colbert handling the duties at the podium on Thursday, but there’s one Steelers angle with some media shelf life, and that’s the “divided locker room.” It was Hines Ward, with his “locker room in disarray” statement, who gave it some new life after the Antonio Brown comments drifted away. Hines, as a media member now, is just doing his job, and a primary job of former-players-turned-announcers is to make pronouncements because opinion, especially provocative opinion, helps you stay relevant long enough to get a foothold in the business as you’re working to get good at it.

* And besides, the importance of locker room harmony is more myth than reality anyway. Professional athletes are fierce competitors, and so they have been trained to come together in competitions to win. It’s not necessary for them to like each other to do that, and when they’re not winning it’s not because they don’t like each other. If there is any on-field dislike among pro players, it’s because a guy isn’t doing his job and it’s costing the team.

* Locker room harmony. It’s a nice story. One I’ve written often myself. If the Steelers return to their winning ways in 2013 it’s one I’ll be writing again. But it’s important to understand that it’s the winning that’s the key to the harmony. Not the other way around.

* If you’re watching any of NFL Network’s telecast of the on-field drills here, try to pay attention when Mike Mayock speaks. He teaches without preaching, and his insight is intelligent and reasoned. Mayock has a good eye, even though I think he’s overrating Te’o.

* During an Arizona Cardinals’ session at the podium, new head coach Bruce Arians said, "I'm not a believer in putting my quarterback in harm's way. The more you put the quarterback in harm's way, the more harm will come to him. I'm more of a traditionalist as far as quarterbacks.''

Arians was responding to a question about the potential long-term viability of the read-opinion offense in the NFL, but really? Arians is a good guy, always pleasant, treats people well, works hard, loves football, good for him that he’s getting a chance to be an NFL head coach. But Arians’ quarterbacks get hit a lot. They just do.

In 2012 with Arians as the Colts coordinator, Andrew Luck led the NFL in a statistics let’s call sacks plus hits, (S/H), with hits being defined as the number of times a defender is able to hit the quarterback who is in the process of throwing the ball or hits him immediately following a throw. Luck’s S/H was 157, with Jacksonville quarterbacks coming in second with 150. In the five seasons Arians was the offensive coordinator here, the Steelers quarterbacks – and Ben Roethlisberger missed eight starts during that time – had an S/H average of 131, and the best S/Hs those years were in the 70s. Seems to be harm’s way to me.

* After he ran a 4.6 yesterday, tight end Tyler Eifert should be the first Notre Dame player drafted, but he won’t. I think I hear the calliope again.


A look at the media crush at the Manti Ta'o press conference.

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