New Chargers GM Telesco shows backbone with Te'o pick
SAN DIEGO -- Chargers owner Dean Spanos hates distractions, and though some might find this hard to believe, he does care about public perception. Like when his football people are considering a potentially controversial decision. In situations like that, Spanos has been known to tell them, in essence: OK, but just don't embarrass my family.
It's against that backdrop that Friday's decision to trade up for inside linebacker Manti Te'o must be viewed -- and why I can't help but believe first-year general manager Tom Telesco might have the stiffest backbone in the NFL. We can debate through the night whether the pick was good or bad, but there is no disputing that it was bold.
A rookie executive in an organization that has had more than a few embarrassing moments -- including several in recent years -- not only drafting a player who is guaranteed to bring the media circus to town, thanks to Te'o's catfishing incident, but trading up to get him? Tom Telesco, you are a bad man.
Spanos wanted a fresh start when he fired general manager A.J. Smith on New Year's Eve, and he has it with Telesco. The move to get Te'o -- San Diego swapped second-round picks and surrendered a fourth-rounder to move up seven spots to No. 38 -- was the second reminder in as many days Smith is no longer running the draft.
There's no way Smith would've selected an offensive linemen in the first round, as Telesco did Thursday night when he took Alabama tackle D.J. Fluker 11th overall. Smith drafted 16 offensive linemen during his 10-year tenure, but only one was selected higher than the third round: tackle Marcus McNeill, who was taken in the second round in 2006.
And Smith never would've selected Te'o, if not because of the intense media scrutiny that would accompany his arrival, then because Te'o is represented by Tom Condon, whom Smith loathed. Smith allowed things to get personal. With Telesco it has been all business.
When the GM returned to the war room Thursday night after the conclusion of the first round, he saw Te'o was still on the board. He didn't say anything to those around him, but his mind started whirring with the possibility of selecting the former Notre Dame star the next day in the second round.
The Chargers had a first-round grade on him and Telesco believed he could be a "dynamic" player and perfect complement for downhill inside linebacker Donald Butler, one of the team's better defensive players. So when Telesco arrived at the facility the next morning he began studying the board and what the teams around San Diego's second-round pick needed. He hypothesized the clubs selecting immediately in front of him would not draft an inside linebacker, but he was concerned about several teams behind him.
"Could we have waited?" Telesco explained. "You just never know. But when you have a guy that's rated a first-round player at a position we can use a player, to sit and wait -- if he goes off (the board) a pick before us, there's no worse feeling in the world. So we thought the value was there, as far as giving up that pick to get him."
One reason Telesco felt comfortable making the move was discussions he had with longtime friend Brian Polian, a former Fighting Irish assistant who recruited Te'o to Notre Dame. Receiving a glowing scouting report from the player's coach is fine. Receiving it from a close friend, someone you trust implicitly, is money in the bank.
While others debate the maturity and character of Te'o, whom some believe perpetuated the hoax about a dead girlfriend even after learning she never existed, Telesco has no questions or concerns about the Heisman Trophy runner-up. Neither does coach Mike McCoy, who experienced a much worse media circus while coaching Tim Tebow in Denver.
"People are going to have questions," McCoy said. "That happened. He's going to learn from it. It's very similar to a lot of other people in life: You make a mistake from time to time and you move on. You learn from it."
The jokes and wisecracks began shortly after the pick, when people called local sports-talk radio stations and pretended to be the imaginary girlfriend Te'o often spoke about. Te'o will meet with reporters Saturday, after which the Chargers expect the issue to go away, in part because San Diego is generally regarded as a "friendly" media market. At that point the hope is the focus will be on football, because the Chargers believe Te'o will have an immediate impact.
"We think we have a pretty good defense now, and adding Manti Te'o is really going to make it hopefully get to the next level," Telesco said. "We had a void at inside linebacker and he was a definite playmaker for us. One of the best players in the country, hands down."
On his way back to the draft room, Telesco passed by the upstairs office of Spanos. "He did his homework on this," Spanos said. "He put in a lot of work."
More noteworthy is that he had the conviction to make a move to get Te'o, knowing the scrutiny it could bring inside and outside the building. If his evaluation is right, the only ones who stand to be embarrassed are the linebacker-needy teams that passed on the All-America.