Bill Tobin, the Bengals scout who scours the southeast, turns 70 on Wednesday. But he spent Monday in the belly of the modern game prepping for next week's NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
Tobin is viewing tapes of the juniors that declared for the NFL Draft last month and not once will he grade a prospect as "a future Hall of Famer," even though he's had a major hand in drafting five of them. He certainly didn't put it in his evaluation of Florida defensive end Carlos Dunlap last year when he came out as a junior. While he gave Dunlap a high grade worthy of the Bengals second-round selection and is encouraged by his 9.5 rookie sacks, Tobin also knows there is a long way to go to for the guy to become an NFL regular, never mind a star.
"I wasn't the only guy that thought we should draft him; scouting isn't a one-man band," Tobin says. "But it is different than it was in some ways."
Tobin's latest two were tapped by the Hall of Fame selectors last week in Richard Dent and Marshall Faulk. Welcome to NFL scouting. Faulk was the second pick of the 1994 draft. Dent was the 203rd pick in 1983. 'Tis the season.
"I've seen some guys put that in their reports calling guys that," Tobin said of the HOF label. "I gave Dent only a second-round grade, so I guess I missed on him."
Dent, sixth on the all-time sacks list, got at least 9.5 sacks in eight seasons. He's one of the four players that Tobin scouted and drafted and saw end up in Canton after helping turn the Bears into one of the '80s iconic images. Running back Walter Payton (first round), defensive tackle Dan Hampton (first round), and middle linebacker Mike Singletary (second round) got the call first.
When Bears general manager Jim Finks came back from lunch on the second day of the 1983 draft, the last attended by owner George Halas, he saw that the scrawny defensive end from Tennessee State was still on the board in the eighth round.
"Hey Toby," Finks said. "Your guy with the second-round grade is still there. You want him here?"
"Hell yes," Tobin said, and the rest made history.
Maybe scouting is different nowadays. Tobin had to take his own projector to look at four of Dent's games when he visited Tennessee State in October 1983. When he found out Dunlap was coming out last year, Bengals video director Travis Brammer was able to send him all of Florida's games via computer.
But it's not all that different.
The Bears got a footnote to history in that eighth round of 1983, an Iowa defensive tackle named Mark Bortz coming off a bad senior year. Tobin remembered watching an Iowa practice back in the fall and Hawkeyes coach Hayden Fry saying he should have moved him to offense. Tobin thought the same thing after watching the tape with the quote in the back of his mind.
After the pick, Tobin recalls head coach Mike Ditka going down the hall to tell offensive line coach Dick Stanfel that he got him a player, but he was a defensive lineman. Bortz ended up playing 171 NFL games on the offensive line for the Bears while going to two Pro Bowls.
"The most important part of the scouting process is that campus visit," Tobin says. "You get to see them up close and talk to people. Nowadays, you're aware of the juniors, but at a place like Florida where you have six, eight, 10 seniors, you have to pay attention to them. And then when the juniors come out, you go to work on them. You have to watch several games and, if it's needed, every snap they take."
So maybe it's not all that different.
Dent was 6-3½ ("Maybe," Tobin says) and just 227 pounds. But in a rating system that ranged from one for excellent to four for a reject, Tobin calls Dent's speed and quickness so good that it should have been "Zero."
"We knew that he had a problem with his teeth and that's why he couldn't eat properly," Tobin says. "The weekend after the draft at the rookie camp we sent him to a dentist and they were able to fix it. He ended up putting on 35 to 40 pounds and never lost that speed."
One of the things that is different, he says, is the amount of people now involved in a pick as he looks at teams around the league with several layers of personnel titles.
While the Bears were plucking Dent and Bortz, he remembers only Halas, Finks, Ditka and Jim Palmer in the room with him. Tobin and Palmer were the club's two top scouts and the only ones who were there for all of the drafts that formed the '85 Bears.
It was pretty sheltered, too, when Tobin became the general manager of the Colts 11 years later. They had the second pick and fifth pick in the 1994 draft and he took head coach Ted Marchibroda and the two coordinators in a plane to visit the top prospects. They took one car ride, a spin over to Ohio State, to watch defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson.
The Bengals ended up taking Wilkinson No. 1. At No. 2, Tobin and the Colts got Faulk, the running back from San Diego State who also could have made the Hall as a receiver and had his best years with the Rams. Tobin says if the Bengals had taken Faulk, the Colts would have taken Wilkinson, a 13-year player that never made the Pro Bowl.
"Marshall was exactly what we needed at the time; a difference-maker who could put points on the board," Tobin said. "He idolized Walter Payton and he'd come in and talk to me about him because he knew I had something to do with drafting him. He'd talk about how some day he'd like to get enough carries to break his rushing record. And I told him, 'Why don't you break the yards from scrimmage record?' and that's about what he did."
Faulk ended up fourth all time in yards from scrimmage. Wide receiver Marvin Harrison, who the Colts took two years later in the first round, has the second-most receptions of all time. That should be Tobin's sixth Hall of Famer when Harrison is eligible in 2013. He says the Colts had Harrison rated behind only USC's Keyshawn Johnson in the '96 draft and while Johnson went No. 1 to the Jets, Harrison went No. 19 to Indy after Terry Glenn and Eddie Kennison went before him.
For the young scout and the old scout, Harrison in 1996 was no different than Payton in 1975. Maybe it's not all that different.
"The thread is pretty much the same," Tobin says. "Intelligent. Committed. Physical. Out of winning programs."
"Quarterback Carson Palmer," says Tobin, "who is going to come back and do it with the Bengals. In 40 years in this game, he's the best quarterback I've ever had on my sideline."
Before Tobin lost his job running the Lions in 2002, he worked on Palmer for the 2003 draft. When the Bengals hired him, they asked him to evaluate the quarterbacks and he did it again. He wasn't the only one in the organization evaluating him and giving Palmer the No. 1 pick-in-the-draft grade.
Palmer's trade demand has put his status in doubt, but Tobin is convinced Palmer comes back on his way to Canton.
"I'm going to count him as seven," says Tobin of the Hall of Famers he's filed reports.
Then he went back to the tape trying to find the eighth.
'Tis the season.