In the 1950s, Joseph Heller began writing a satirical novel about war. “Catch-22,” the title of the novel, referred to the military rule that dealt with soldiers claiming they were crazy so they could avoid combat.
“Catch-22’’ postulated that attempting to escape combat was the act of a sane human, so claiming insanity proved sanity. As one character said in the movie version, “That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”
The NFL draft features its own catch. Teams analyze players to weed out problematic personalities, but winning NFL teams are filled with what normal society would consider problematic personalities: the crazed headhunters who want to see their opponents bleed; the 23-year-old willing to sacrifice the ability to think or walk straight in exchange for one spectacular play; the defensive star who can’t contain his violent tendencies to the playing field.
Vikings personnel boss Rick Spielman has been forced to contemplate this catch. He needs linebackers. Two of the best, Georgia’s Alec Ogletree and Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o, are, in different ways, problematic. Ogletree has been arrested on charges of stealing and driving drunk. Te’o has invented and publicly mourned a fake girlfriend, apparently as part of a public-relations process intended to land him the Heisman Trophy.
Both might be a little crazy. The question Spielman has to ask is, what kind of crazy is the right kind of crazy in his league?
A few years ago, Spielman held an extensive chalk-talk about evaluating players. He spoke of “red-flagging” players whose personalities or transgressions made them risks.
That sounds shrewd, but there are two problems with it in football: 1) Lots of great players are somewhere between problematic and felonious; 2) The Vikings have proven they have no problem taking a chance on a talented players deserving of red flags.
The great, old Vikings teams were filled with wild men and miscreants. The team’s more recent history has included Keith Millard, who once yelled at cops that his arms were more powerful than their guns; Onterrio Smith, known forever as Mr. Whizzinator; Randy Moss, perhaps the foremost argument for anti-authoritarian talent; and Percy Harvin, who went from MVP candidate to persona non grata with the Vikings in a two-month span.
What do those players have in common? They were all talented enough to justify risk, ranging from pretty good (Smith) to exceptional (Millard, Moss and Harvin).
Te’o falls into a different category. He’s not a felon. He’s not a druggie. He seems like a nice kid who did something embarrassing, which would not make him unusual had he not played football well enough to propel his embarrassment onto the national stage.
There is precedent for felons and druggies and wild men excelling in the NFL. There does not seem to be much precedent for delusional or gullible athletes becoming defensive stars in the NFL.
Ray Lewis, considered one of the greatest leaders in recent league history, was involved in a double murder. Te’o lied about a relationship. In the NFL, being implicated in a double murder does not ruin your status in a locker room. Being a self-aggrandizing fabricator might.
Te’o, like many prospects bearing red flags before him, might have enough talent to prove well worth a high draft pick. Wherever he plays, he will learn that players control the story. If he performs well, the national NFL media, who tuck themselves into Roger Goodell’s bed every evening, will react by extolling his ability to rise above past problems. Te’o not only could have a good career, he could be lauded by ESPN and Fox as a model for every person who ever has done something stupid.
If I’m Spielman, I allow Te’o’s story to play out in another market. I pass on him because he does not appear to be the kind of middle linebacker who can play three downs in the Vikings’ scheme, he was manhandled by Alabama’s offensive line, and because the Vikings should use their highest draft picks on players at more critical positions, such as defensive line, receiver and cornerback.
Most of all, I just don’t think Te’o is the right kind of crazy for the NFL.