For several years, Bengals fans have recognized the important role that the team’s Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin has played in building one of the NFL’s deepest and most talented rosters.
But when he stepped to the podium at the NFL Scouting Combine on Thursday to discuss the Bengals with the national media – the first time he has represented the team that visibly – the initial question was about his role with the franchise.
“Does this mean you’re running the show there?” asked Chris Wesseling from NFL.com.
“No,” replied Tobin. “There’s no sea change. Our operation remains the same. I was asked to come and talk and it’s a scouting event so it’s a natural thing.”
The self-effacing Tobin typically downplays his importance in Cincinnati, but his acumen in evaluating talent is widely respected throughout the NFL. In January, the Detroit Lions and Tennessee Titans reportedly requested permission to interview Tobin for their general manager openings but he declined to even go through the process.
“It’s flattering, but I knew early on in my job here with the Bengals that this is a place where I wanted to make an entire career,” Tobin said. “I’ve done everything that I could to build myself up within the organization, to add value every year and make that happen. I grew up with a dad who was in Chicago for 18 seasons and he did that for us and for himself and it’s the right thing to do.”
His father Bill is the former general manager of the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts and Duke spent his childhood hanging around his dad’s teams.
“That’s really all I did, other than playing sports myself,” Duke told me. “When I had free time I would be up at Halas Hall being a ball boy, or working security, or pulling the nets at games, or just hanging around the locker room. So I grew up around pro football and that’s really all I’ve ever known.”
His father played a critical role in building the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears who went 15-1 during the regular season before putting together the most dominant postseason stretch in NFL history. The Bears beat the Giants 21-0 in their first playoff game, added a 24-0 shutout of the Rams in the NFC Championship, and then crushed the Patriots in the Super Bowl 46-10.
Duke watched that Super Bowl rout from the Bears’ sideline.
“I’ve got great memories of that team,” he said. “They had ability, they had character, and they enjoyed the game. It was more than a job; it was their lifestyle. When I look at players today, those are the guys I compare them to. Those are the guys I’m always trying to find – Walter Payton being the number one. When you grade a guy, that’s kind of the high end of the scale. A lot of those Bears of the ‘80s shaped my opinion of what a football player should be.”
But his ability to judge talent was also shaped by his own football career. Duke was a highly-recruited high school quarterback who began his college career at Illinois where he was a backup to the eventual number one overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft Jeff George.
“It’s humbling throwing next to a guy like that because it shows all of your deficits pretty quick,” Duke said with a laugh. “When I showed up there, it was a little awe-inspiring to watch how the ball came out of his hand. He had one of the strongest arms and quickest releases that I’ve ever seen.”
After two years at Illinois, Tobin transferred to Colorado where he backed up another quarterback who went on to have a long NFL career Kordell Stewart. Both programs reached the Top 10 in the rankings while Duke was on the roster.
“I was fortunate to be on some good college teams and I think for my job right now, that helped me and shaped what I look for,” he said. “Those Illinois teams were good and then when I went to Colorado we had some very fine teams there with a lot of very good players that played in the NFL.”
Despite only starting one college game, Tobin went on to play professionally in the Arena Football League with the Orlando Predators and Memphis Pharaohs.
“We made a little bit of money and they gave us room and board and an automobile to drive, so there were some positives to it,” said Tobin. “We had a good team as well, and I think a lot of college football players don’t admit when it’s over. I probably fell into that bucket and said, ‘Hey, why not give it another year or two?’ I ended up getting hurt, and it wasn’t worth giving up your knee ligament for it for sure. I started scouting soon after that. I realized where my lot was.”
After spending four years as a scout with the Colts, Duke joined the Bengals scouting department in 1999 before becoming director of player personnel in 2002. His father joined the Bengals scouting staff the following year.
So while his 15 minutes at the podium on Thursday should not be interpreted to mean that Duke’s job has changed, it’s unmistakable that he’s happy with his current role in the Bengals front office.
“Loyalty is a two-way street,” said Tobin. “We really enjoy Cincinnati. I wanted to give my kids that same opportunity that my dad gave us to grow up in one place and establish some roots. We’re Cincinnati Bengals and I knew early on that’s what I wanted to do.”
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