CINCINNATI -- Duke Tobin, the Bengals director of the player personnel, describes the club’s philosophy this way: “Our model is: Draft, develop and retain.”
How’s that going?
All 11 offensive starters are homegrown players; seven of the 11 defensive starters are homegrown. Most of the key backups were drafted and developed by the Bengals as well.
It’s one thing to do that and blend in with the middle of the pack, but the Bengals are 8-0. John Harbaugh, the Baltimore Ravens coach, called Cincinnati the most talented team in the NFL.
Tobin, 45, has been with the Bengals since 1999. He’s been in his current job since 2002. It would be easy to call him the Man Behind the Roster.
He wants no such credit.
“It’s group effort,” he said. “It’s not a one-person effort here. We’re all on the same page.”
Tobin comes from a football family. His father, Bill, was the general manager of the Chicago Bears and the Indianapolis Colts. Bill is now a scout for the Bengals. Duke maintains a low-profile. He’s not well-known outside the organization, although he’s getting mention nationally for general manager openings.
“He’s done a great job,” radio analyst and former Bengal Dave Lapham said. “He’s kind of the unsung hero. His dad, Bill, has done a great job as well. He put together great teams. Duke is the orchestrator. He’s kind of the one who’s pulled together all facets. It used to be management had one voice, the coaching staff had one voice, the scouting department has one voice.
“He’s pulled it all together as one voice. He’s done a phenomenal job. He’s put his bat on the ball in bunches drafts in a row.”
The Bengals have one of the smallest scouting staffs in the NFL. Four scouts total: Bill Tobin, Mike Potts, Steven Radicevic and Greg Seamon. The club relies heavily on their assistant coaches to scout. They used to get crushed for that.
“We never believed that,” Duke Tobin said. “That was the motif. But that was never the reality inside our building. I think good coaches want to be involved in the process.”
Tobin, who scouted for the Colts for four years before coming to the Bengals, believes in the lean approach. The Colts had nine scouts the last year he was there.
“I think more is not always better,” he said. “I won’t name teams, but there are teams in this league that have 30-some scouts. At some point, you’ve got too many cooks in the kitchen. If you send one person in a school to get the information and you have to send a second person... Why did you send in the first person?
“We believe and trust in the guys we have doing it. We don’t need a lot of layers.”
No One is a Specialist
Because of the size of the Bengals’ scouting staff, no one is a specialist. That’s by design.
“You can’t just pigeonhole a scout: You only get to look at this area of the country and you do no pro film work and do nothing other than that,” Tobin said. “That guy’s going to have a low prospective on what plays in this league. If you allow your scouts to work in a lot of areas, it broadens their perspective on what plays. Our scouts have pro scouting responsibilities, they have college scouting responsibilities, they have position overview responsibilities. So they work in variety ways. That gives them perspective.
“If you don’t look at NFL players, you’ve got no ability to say how this college player compares in the NFL. And vice-versa, if you only look at pro players, you have no perspective on what’s coming up and what’s available.
“I think it’s important to work in both areas.”
Draft Day and the Combine have become so big in the NFL now that there are few secrets when it comes to scouting.
“I don’t pretend that there’s some magic formula,” Tobin said. “Everybody is looking for the same thing at the base. We’re looking for big. We’re looking for fast. We’re looking for strong. We’re looking for productive. We’re looking for football character. There are so many commonalities in scouting.”
Assessing Football Character
Tobin says one of the more important aspects of scouting is getting to know the players and to assess the football-character part.
“We try to put a lot of effort into finding guys who enjoy the game -- not who are playing it because they can, or have to,” Tobin said. “Guys who enjoy being around a team atmosphere. Guys have who have confidence but who are not overly selfish. There are a lot of personality traits we look for, too.”
It helps tremendously if you have talent and you want to play.
“The most important thing is do they want to come to work in the morning and be around the guys and enjoy the camaraderie of what a team is,” Tobin said. “We’ve got guys who have been around the NFL a while -- mostly with us -- who provide good mentorship. They show how it should be done. When you walk in and see Domata Peko and Andrew Whitworth work, it’s hard not to follow that.”
Tobin says the Bengals listen to everyone before pulling the trigger in the draft. A premium is placed on coming to an agreement.
“If we can’t find consensus, we normally go to a different player,” he said. “We have a great ability to talk things through and find consensus, find guys we think are right for our situations at the right positions.”
It Helps to be Lucky
“We’ve had a run of luck where guys have fallen to us,” Tobin said. “It doesn’t always work that way. But there’s been a string of drafts where we’ve targeted guys... guys who really fit. As the draft goes on, low and behold, those are the guys that are still available.”
“Particularly in the early rounds. Guys who we felt like fit didn’t disappear right before we drafted. That’s a big part of it. You’ve got to have some fortune.”
Examples that are the biggest-name players: A.J. Green and Andy Dalton. Green and Dalton were picked No. 1 and 2 in the 2011 draft. It’s safe to say that no No. 1 and 2 in the same year had more impact on the franchise.
“We were high in the draft that year, but we didn’t think A.J. would get to us,” Tobin said. “But he got to us. In our opinion, it was going to be nip and tuck if we were going to be able to get (Dalton) at the top of the second round. Do we trade up? There were a lot of anxious moments. But Mike (Brown) made the right call.”
The Bengals have done well later in the draft as well. They got defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Peko and offensive linemen Russell Bodine and Clint Boling in the fourth round. Wide receiver Marvin Jones was a fifth-rounder.
“No piece is more in important than the other pieces,” Tobin said. “You’ve got to not only draft the right guy, you’ve got to put him a position to succeed. I think we’re excellent at putting young guys in a position to succeed and giving them time to develop, giving them the ability to develop and knowledge to develop; then rewarding them when they develop.”
The Role of Free Agents
The Bengals don’t completely ignore the free-agent route. Cornerback Adam Jones and linebacker A.J. Hawk, defensive end Wallace Gilberry and offensive tackle Eric Winston came via free agency. But because every player is so reliant on other players, Tobin doesn’t see relying heavily on free agents as the way to win.
“There are some teams that try to build a new team each year,” Tobin said. “It’s not baseball. If I had seen that work, I’d be more open to it. I’ve never seen that work. You go out and win the off season: Sign Joe, John and Mack. They got all these great players. Now, they’re going to come together and form a team in one year? Doesn’t work.”
The Bengals’ depth is such that they’re able to be patient with development. Cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard, both first-rounders, were given time to learn as back-ups. The club took offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, knowing that he was coming off a knee injury and wouldn’t be ready to play until midseason.
“We thought he was a high-level pick, a player we would not have had access to had he not been injured,” Tobin said. “We thought he might slide to us. We were sitting in position that allows you to take a player that doesn’t have to play right away. Not every team is in that position. We knew that would affect the decisions of some other teams in front us. He did slide to us. We were in position where we have two excellent tackles and could add a guy and develop him at his pace.”
Sharing the Credit
“It’s a team effort,” he said. “It’s a group effort. It’s something we work at all year. I think the key to what we do is we have a lot of experienced people around the building. We’ve got a lot of experience in our scouting department.
“We’ve got some youth, too. They do a great job of setting the table for us. We have a deep, experienced coaching staff that provides an incredible value in the process.”
“We’ve got guys who have been drafting in this league for 40-plus years. Draft Day doesn’t surprise them. They’ve seen about every type of player you could see. When you combine how long Mike (Brown’s) been doing it, how long Pete (Brown’s) been doing it, how long my dad’s been doing it -- they’ve all been drafting for over 40 years.”
“That kind of experience, plus the experience on our coaching staff has led to some successes.”
Learn to Sustain Success
Sustaining success in the NFL can be difficult. The league is geared toward parity.
“You’ve got to manage the cap effectively -- be able to pay guys, retain guys,” Tobin said. “That’s something we’ve been very good at. (Executive vice president Katie Blackburn) does a tremendous job of managing the finances of the football team and how to spend it. We’ve recently gotten some young guys back under contract.”
The Bengals’ big contracts go to players they’ve developed.
“When you have to pay a guy a high rate, you’re playing the guys who have done it right around you’re building,” Tobin said. “That registers with guys in the locker room. A.J. walked in the first day and did it right the whole time. Now he’s been rewarded at league-wide level. That registers. You can’t pay everybody. When you do decide to pay somebody, it’s better when you do it with guys who developed inside your team.”
That all goes with the “Draft, develop and retain” philosophy.