INDIANAPOLIS _ Duke Tobin arrives at the NFL scouting combine this week defending his Sporting News' NFL Executive of the Year award the same way he directed two of the league's greatest back-to-back drafts of the century.
Staying the course.
Just like he did when a combine meeting 23 years ago resulted in Bengals president Mike Brown bringing him to Cincinnati when he found out Tobin wanted to make it a career. Just like he did nearly a decade ago when Brown gave him control of the draft room as director of player of personnel while head coach Marvin Lewis' Green-Dalton Bengals were early in their run of five straight playoff berths.
Just like he did when he greeted Bengals head coach Zac Taylor two weeks ago after the gut-punch loss to the Rams swiped Super Bowl LVI in the last minute from the Burrow-Chase edition, their last two record-setting first-round draft picks.
"It's easy to do your job when the sun is shining. But it's hard to stay with your values and convictions on what you believe when it's hard," says Chris Ballard, general manager of the combine host Colts who, at 52, is a year older than Tobin and goes way back on the scouting trail with him.
"They stayed the course. When they made the coaching change from Marvin, who was there for a long time and did a tremendous job, they knew it was going to be a little bit of a bumpy road and they stayed the course. They've acquired both in free agency and the draft really good players that fit their culture and they're reaping the benefits of it."
Tobin, voted by his peers in NFL front offices, greets the national microphones Tuesday afternoon no doubt being asked how the Bengals amassed the AFC championship roster just two years removed from 2-14 with a small yet nimble scouting staff that delivered so much so soon.
The AFC passing champion franchise quarterback in 2020 overall No. 1 pick Joe Burrow. The most prolific rookie receiver in NFL history in 2021 first-round draft pick Ja'Marr Chase. One of the two most accurate kickers ever in a postseason in 2021 fifth-rounder Evan McPherson. Their leading tackler in 2020 third-rounder Logan Wilson during a Super Bowl season that included six regulars in the big game from the 2020 and 2021 drafts.
Tobin stayed the course he's been on since he was a ball boy at the '80s Bears training camps, where his dad, Bill Tobin, built one of the NFL's greatest teams as Papa Bear George Halas' director of player personnel. As Duke Tobin went on to quarterback Hersey High School to an Illinois state title, his dad was celebrated for producing the legendary 1985 Bears with a small but talented staff.
Now nearly 40 years later, Tobin, 81, who scouts for the Bengals, is hearing similar praise for Duke building what some consider to be the youngest and deepest roster in the NFL.
"The only guy I've really modeled myself after is my dad," Duke Tobin says. "My dad allowed people to work. He didn't micromanage. He would give directives and let people work. Everything I've said (about scouting) comes from him.
"The scout has to believe the club values his work. If you're just a number and what you're doing isn't valued by the club, it's really folly. My dad believed scouts are very valuable and they should be treated as such and the information needs to be treated as such … He wanted information developers, not information gatherers … I've never been part of a big structure and my dad never had a big structure. He had guys he believed in and trusted … We've expanded, but if it's not broke, and our guys are producing and we believe in them and feel it's good to have a close-knit group. When they get more responsibility, it's because they earned it."
In the last five years or so Tobin has lured scouts with a rich range of about five and a half decades of varying backgrounds between his dad and area scout Andrew "A.J." Johnson, at 28, the youngest in the department. Christian Sarkisian, 30, just this season added Texas to his slices of the Big Ten and Big 12 after beginning his career with National Football Scouting.
Duke Tobin recruited director of pro scouting director Steven Radicevic from UCLA ten years ago and director of college scouting Mike Potts from the Falcons eight years ago. Both are in their mid-30s and are two of the hottest scouts in the league.
During the last two offseasons, Radicevic, who also scouts the western schools, oversaw the Bengals' richest and best free agency periods. The group, spearheaded by Pro Bowl-caliber nose tackle D.J. Reader and all-time single-season franchise sacker Trey Hendrickson, is coming off a historic season of success where 2020 and 2021 free agents accounted for nine Opening Day starters of a Super Bowl season.
"People don't realize how good they are up front on defense," Ballard says. "That's underrated. Getting Reader back this year. Hendrickson. Signing Larry (Ogunjobi) to a one-year deal. Trading for B.J. Hill. (Cam) Sample was a good (draft) pick. They're young and deep and that's exactly what you want up there."
Potts, who scouts the southeast, had the area of Burrow, Chase and McPherson before splitting the region this year with their newest and yet one of their most experienced scouts in Trey Brown. Andrew Johnson, already heading into his sixth season with the club, keeps adding to his responsibilities with some midwestern schools and free agency assignments to go along with his east coast duties.
Tobin inked Trey Brown last spring and Brown, who turns 37 Tuesday, is working the combine for his third Super Bowl team as a personnel exec who has done it in four leagues. Radicevic has also put him in charge of the free-agent defensive backs, which shows the cross-training Tobin believes is imperative.
"You need to know what's in the league to see who can play in the league," is how Duke Tobin often says it.
Radicevic, the director of UCLA's football operations when he met Tobin a decade ago, confirms that Duke runs it like Bill. Duke Tobin saw the talent, developed him by bringing him into watch him work such schools as Utah, and then unleashed him.
"I've watched him through the years give more and more responsibility to A.J. and Christian," Radicevic says. "He's good with that. He lets his guys run with it. He developed me. He saw my role at UCLA and the connections I had with the other scouts there. Those guys helped bring me along and Duke was a part of it."
Tobin isn't on the road nearly as much these days. But he hasn't strayed from his old-school roots that stem from watching his dad scout with the old 16mm projectors and from watching him run the Colts when he worked for him in the mid-90s. He makes sure he sits down and watches every player in the draft. First, with his staff. Then on to cross checking as the draft draws closer.
Kevin Colbert, the estimable head of Steelers personnel who has watched Tobin work in a similar market, believes those roots have served him well. When Colbert broke in as a BLESTO scout, Bill Tobin's Bears were also a BLESTO team.
"I never worked for Bill directly, but I saw Duke around and I knew how grounded he was in learning scouting from his father," Colbert says. "It's a professional approach based on experience. Over time (the Bengals) have expanded their personnel department. You've seen the growth. He's out in front, but he never changed in that role. He was still going to be a talented evaluator first, which I think is admirable for people who get into that position. It's not that you don't trust your scouts, but you also put your own eyes on them."
John Schneider, another general manager peer who usually has the Seahawks contending, has also seen the tried-and-true basics at work down through the years.
"I've been to a number of schools with Duke in the past and when you're sitting in a room with a person like that, you get to know them very well," Schneider says. "You get to know if they can evaluate players or not. He's a guy who is a really clear thinker and communicator and knows exactly what he wants."
Of course, that was back when scouts had to go to schools just to watch tape. Not so anymore. The video is now pumped into the scouting systems after every college game and Tobin has adjusted. Campus visits are still key during the season. But not like they were. He has made office scouting a staple, free of travel and other headaches. That, and dividing up the college and pro work into departments headed by Radicevic and Potts after the 2018 draft are probably his most recent biggest changes.
(Not to mention blowing up the iconic draft board, a victim of the 2020 Pandemic Draft that had to go virtual. Now the board is safely tucked away in an easily updatable computer program.
For instance, no more is time spent on printing out one card of info for each prospect and then having to re-print updates. More time, Tobin says, to do the real work.)
"There's always going to be a travel component. You have to see how a guy interacts with his teammates," Tobin says. "But you also now have an opportunity to be able to sit in your office and watch tape. You look at our willingness to bring in our scouts and have them live in Cincinnati. They have their own offices here and have the chance to really dive into the tape individually. That has really paid dividends for us."
The one thing that gets Tobin incensed is if one person takes credit for acquiring a player. He believes that players are touched by so many people at Paul Brown Stadium that there has to be consensus and cross-checking with not only other scouts, but also the coaches.
But everybody better know what they're talking about, another reason Tobin likes a tight-knit staff.
"The biggest pet peeve I have and my dad has is the quick, flippant opinion drawing as much scrutiny as a full day of work," Tobin says. "As long as the work has been put in the correct way from somebody who knows what they're looking at, that work should be valued."
The Bengals' 2021 draft is a prime example of the tight team approach focused and not spread out. Chase and McPherson, as well as sixth-rounder Trey Hill, were in Potts' area. Second-rounder Jackson Carman, fourth-rounder D'Ante Smith and sixth-rounder Chris Evans came out of Johnson's area. Radicevic visited third-rounder Joseph Ossai at Texas. Sarkisian went into Tulane to scout fourth-rounder Cam Sample and into Kansas State to look at seventh-rounder Wyatt Hubert to shore up the edge.
But all the picks had been vetted by Tobin as well as others.
"We all end up watching a few guys that we drafted," Radicevic says. "We either have cross checks or the area scouts or just players that were assigned randomly by Mike or Duke. We'll end up having three scouts watch one player that we drafted. It would be rare, for instance, to have A.J. or Christian have a player that they did not write up in the draft. We'll all end up having at least watched one of the guys we drafted, if not more."
Which is exactly how Tobin wants it. Everyone knows they have to be on whenever they're working. Not all that different, really, when Bill Tobin was drafting Hall-of-Famers like Walter Payton and Marshall Faulk and there were actual draft boards and where Bill would tell stories about getting dogs to guard them.
"I give them a lot of credit for this," Ballard says. "They had the conviction to take Joe Burrow and not listen to teams trading up and I'm sure they had some great offers. They believed in him and they put weapons around him when the conventional wisdom last year was to take the left tackle. But they had a belief Ja'Marr Chase was a special talent. A real difference maker. Never pass up a guy you think is a special talent and kudos to them. They didn't listen to the critics. They just took him. I give them a lot of credit for that."
It was the kind of call made by an executive of the year.
"Well deserving,' says Ballard as the race begins again this week.