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NFL's scrutiny of Manti Te'o and his imaginary relationship won't end at combine

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – The front-office executive fielded the question with the utmost seriousness, issuing a businesslike response amid the pleasure-packed madness of Mo's, the downtown Indy steakhouse that is the unofficial epicenter of the 2013 NFL scouting combine.

Will your team be interviewing Manti Te'o?

"No," the executive responded Thursday night, an answer that indicated a lack of interest in the former Notre Dame linebacker and purported catfishing victim whose celebrated connection with an imaginary girlfriend has titillated the sports world for the past five weeks.

The executive let his dismissive response linger for a few seconds before supplying the punch line: "We're going to do it by email."

If you thought the NFL's coaches and top talent evaluators might be immune to the type of ruthless taunting that Te'o faces in the cyber universe, it's time to revise that scouting report. As teams focus on a draft class that is decidedly unsexy, the former Butkus Award winner's phantom tryst is not only fodder for comedic material, but is also a very real factor in assessing his draft status.

[Related: Manti Te'o coached, but poised in combine press conference]

On Saturday afternoon, when Te'o held a 15-minute news conference at a Lucas Oil Stadium podium amid an overflowing throng of reporters, it was one of what will surely be many uncomfortable moments he'll face over the next two days, when he'll be subjected to a barrage of questions in 15-minute interviews with 20 NFL teams.

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Te'o answered questions in front of hundreds of reporters at the combine. (AP)

"Of all the people here at the combine, the one person you don't want to be is him," said the head coach of an NFC team Saturday. "Seriously, I'd rather have six positive drug tests, a DUI, a domestic-abuse charge and some theft incidents than have to deal with all the questions that guy's going to face. He's going to be probed by most of the teams, and all of you guys, until his head is spinning. Trust me, it's gonna be brutal."

Given that uncomfortable certainly, Te'o handled his moment in the media spotlight as well as could be expected. He tackled numerous questions about the Girlfriend Who Never Existed, conceded that NFL teams had every right to be curious about the controversy and vowed the experience would make him a stronger, more honest person.

At the end of his news conference, Te'o thanked the several hundred media members for their time, expressed gratitude for his family and school and said he hoped he'd put the lingering questions about his behavior to rest.

"Hopefully after this I've answered everything I need to answer," Te'o said, "and we can move on with football."

Good luck with that, Manti.

Given his status as a possible first-round draft pick, something which will depend on variables ranging from his 40-yard dash time to teams' assessment of his honesty and character, Te'o is going to face scrutiny from many of the coaches and talent evaluators who were as shocked by the imaginary-girlfriend revelations as the general public.

Before he met the press, Te'o had conducted 15-minute interviews with the Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers – and 18 more teams will get their cracks at him over the next two days. More intensive vetting will come during predraft visits with organizations that choose to fly him to their facilities. He is sure to face a battery of psychological evaluations, both from service providers at the combine to which numerous teams subscribe and from individual clinicians employed by specific franchises.

[Related: Teams concerned about Manti Te'o's football skills]

If Te'o, who continued to perpetuate the story surrounding his faux girlfriend's much-reported death even after learning that he'd been the alleged victim of a hoax, has any objections to being probed, he's not making them public.

"They want to be able to trust their player," Te'o said of his prospective employers. "You don't want to invest in somebody who you can't trust. With everybody here, they're just trying to get to know you. They're trying to get to know you as a person and as a football player. I understand where they're coming from."

Judging by the way Te'o handled himself in front of the cameras, notebooks and smartphones on Saturday, he appears to have the temperament and composure that NFL teams crave. To be sure, some of the questions he faces will be of the friendly-fire variety. Te'o said that in his interviews with the Packers and Texans, he was asked about the girlfriend drama at the outset. In each case, after he gave a quick explanation, the conversation was redirected to football for the balance of the meeting.

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Te'o said he thinks the embarrassment from his scandal has begun to subside. (AP)

This non-confrontational approach is one favored by numerous NFL teams. "I don't want to make people uncomfortable," one AFC general manager said. "I want the guy I'm interviewing to be relaxed so that he'll open up and reveal things about himself, and what he really cares about."

Said an NFC GM: "[Messing] with guys isn't my style. Yes, I'll ask [Te'o] the question – obviously – but I'm not going to try to catch him off guard or make him think I'm an [expletive]. It'll be, 'Tell me about that situation, from your perspective.' "

Noble as that may be, it's not the same philosophy shared by every NFL powerbroker. As we learned three years ago during the notorious Jeff Ireland/Dez Bryant controversy, general managers and coaches sometimes ask brutally incendiary questions in these contexts. For what it's worth Ireland, the Dolphins' general manager who offended Bryant by asking if the ex-Oklahoma State receiver's mother was a prostitute, will be the team official presiding over Miami's scheduled interview with Te'o in Indy.

[Also: Alex Smith on the trading block in Indy]

"I'm absolutely going to come at him," another AFC general manager said. "I want to see how he handles it – because trust me, he's going to get a lot worse in the locker room and out on the field. What he was involved with was crazy and weird, and there are a lot of legitimate questions."

To be fair, Te'o's imaginary-relationship issues aren't the only questions that could impact his draft position. There are concerns about his speed, ability to remain on the field during passing downs and proficiency playing in space. Despite impressive statistics during his senior season, Te'o struggled in the Irish's blowout defeat to Alabama in last month's BCS national championship game, and some teams now regard him more as second-round talent.

"To me, it all comes down to how fast he runs," one AFC coach said. "If he runs a 4.6, we're probably talking about a guy who goes in the top 15. If he runs a 4.8, he'll be a second-round pick, or maybe drop even more than that. We'll all be saying, 'Look at how bad he was in that championship game; he got exposed.' His 40-time will be a really big deal."

Most teams currently regard the 6-2, 255-pound Te'o as one of the draft's top two inside linebackers, along with LSU's Kevin Minter. Te'o is rated well below Georgia outside linebacker Alec Ogletree and, for that matter, last year's top inside linebacker, Luke Kuechly, who won NFL defensive rookie of the year honors in 2012 after being drafted ninth overall by the Carolina Panthers. Kuechly ran the 40 in 4.58 seconds at last year's combine.

"I'd compare Te'o to James Laurinaitis," one scout said, referring to the Rams' inside linebacker who St. Louis picked in the second round (35th overall) of the 2009 draft.

Another scout compared Te'o to the Raiders' Rolando McClain, who went eighth overall in the 2010 draft but has struggled as a pro. "He's heavy-legged, like McClain," the scout said. "I see some limitations in his game."

[Also: Bears head coach Marc Trestman excited to work with Jay Cutler]

Whereas McClain has been embroiled in off-the-field controversies, including the 180-day sentence he received after being convicted on gun charges in Alabama (it was later overturned on appeal), Te'o broke no laws and didn't seem to inflict any harm upon anyone but himself.

Life in the predraft pressure-cooker isn't necessarily fair, however, and Te'o has surely faced more scrutiny and ridicule than most 22-year-olds could imagine.

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Some NFL personnel evaluators think Te'o's 40-yard time will factor the most in where he is drafted. (AP)

"It got overwhelming at times," Te'o conceded, referring to the fallout from the Deadspin story that revealed the hoax. "The hardest part was … just to see, not necessarily my first name, but my last name. Everybody here, you treasure your last name. That's what you hold dear. That's something that when you pass on, the only thing that stays with you, stays here is your last name. To see your last name everywhere and know I represented my family and all my cousins and aunties and uncles…"

Later, asked to detail the toughest moment he'd experienced, Te'o continued with that theme: "I think the toughest moment, to be honest with you, was a phone call that I got from my sister where she told me that they had to sneak my own family in their home because there were people parked out in the yard and stuff like that. That had to be the hardest part. And, for me, something that I've always had a problem with is when I can't do something about it; I can't help. To know that my family was in this situation because of the actions I committed was definitely the hardest part for me."

[Also: Feud between Roger Goodell, DeMaurice Smith hurting league's progress]

Not surprisingly, Te'o was embarrassed by the rash of publicity. "Oh, definitely," he said. "For anybody to go through, it's definitely embarrassing. When you're walking through grocery stores and you're kind of like giving people double-takes to see if they're staring at you, it's definitely embarrassing. I guess it's part of the process, it's part of the journey. You know it's only going to make me stronger, and it definitely has."

Asked if the embarrassment has since subsided, Te'o answered, "Oh, definitely. It definitely has gone. Obviously I'm here. If I was still embarrassed, I wouldn't be standing in front of you."

That's noble, but if Te'o believes his 15 minutes of shame can be erased by his 15 impressive minutes on the podium Saturday – or in the 15-minute team interviews that will dominate his weekend –he may be in for a harsh reality-check.

In NFL circles, where gossip is an accepted currency and weaknesses are presumed invitations for exploitation, the high-profile draft prospect with the imaginary girlfriend is going to face some verifiable lampooning.

Consider what happened on Friday night at the start of one NFC team's 15-minute interview with Tyler Eifert, the former Notre Dame tight end who is considered a possible first-round selection. To kick things off, the team's head coach asked Eifert, "Do you have a girlfriend?"

"Yes," Eifert responded.

"Is she real?" the coach shot back.

Eifert – and everyone else – burst into laughter.

This is what football has come to for Te'o, a man whose tale of a deceased girlfriend once generated sympathy – and who now must navigate his way through a controversy that won't die.

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