Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, known as “Paulie G.,” around Paul Brown Stadium for the 13 seasons he did every job imaginable, figured he’d come back one day to call plays against the Bengals and that one day came quickly enough Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 12, order tickets) for the home finale.
But never once did he think his opposite number over there on the home sideline, where he called the defenses for the last four seasons, would be Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis himself.
“That’s going to be weird,” said Guenther Monday night from Oakland, where he watched something else unimaginable: Bengals game tape with no Andy Dalton or A.J. Green.
“It makes them different,” he offered in coach-like caution.
It was Lewis that brought in the 33-year-old Guenther during the 2005 season as an advanced scout after they worked together in Washington before Guenther worked his way up the coaching staff starting as a special teams assistant that also helped coach linebackers or defensive backs. He emerged as defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s top aide, the architect of an effective third-down package before he replaced Zimmer in 2014. All the while always impressed with how Lewis let his coaches coach.
“I know Marvin is going through some hard times,” Guenther said. “It looks like he’s got them playing better. It looks like they’ve gone back to what the players are familiar with and he’s using some things maybe I didn’t do. He’s putting his own spin on it. The whole time there Marvin never really came in and said, ‘I want you to do this,’ or ‘I want you to do that.’ He was really good about all that stuff. I’m sure he’s had time to be reminded it’s not an easy job, especially with the offenses and the rules and all the things going around the league now.”
It was a tough move for Guenther to make. Not only did he raise his two sons here, but he considers Bengals president Mike Brown’s family part of his family.
“Mike and everyone in the family treated me great,” Guenther said. “Working for Marvin was really good and we had really good players and good guys on defense. With all the uncertainty around Marvin at the end of the year, I just felt like it was time.”
Call this one the Carlo and Johnny Bowl for the suburban Cincinnati restaurant where Guenther and former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden used to break bread. From there sprung coaching bull sessions with ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, Jay’s brother, and when Jon took the Oakland job it seemed just as natural as Guenther replacing Zimmer.
But another thing that would have shocked Guenther back in January is that the Raiders defense wouldn’t have Pro Bowl pass rusher Khalil Mack and they’d be ranked 28th and that the Bengals defense would have Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap and be ranked dead last. With the Raiders opting to re-build with high draft picks instead of re-tool with a core led by Mack, the 3-10 Raiders are learning to live with youth.
Last week when they stunned the Steelers, 24-21, Guenther started two rookie linemen, a rookie middle linebacker, a second-year linebacker, a rookie nickel corner and his anchor, the second-year cornerback Gareon Conley, is virtually a rookie after playing just 92 snaps last season. Some would argue that Guenther has very few players that could start in Cincinnati.
“We’re in a totally different situation than what they have in Cincinnati. We’re so young,” Guenther said. “I am surprised, to be honest with you, what’s happened there. They’ve got a lot of good veteran players. But I don’t know what’s going on. I haven’t seen very much, except for the cross-over games.
“I still consider them my guys. We play at different times, so I follow the scores. Even though I’m on a different team, I still feel like they’re my guys.”
Guenther plans to say hello to as many as he can before and after Sunday’s game since he never got a chance to say good-bye.
“There was a lot of uncertainty what Marvin’s future was and typically we have a meeting at the end of the season with the guys and I would have liked to have thanked them,” Guenther said. “And I would have liked to have had a chance to do that and I did not to do that. I felt bad about that.”
Faced with teaching his defense to young players, Guenther brought in some old Bengals that knew the system, such as cornerback Leon Hall, since cut. He kept safety Reggie Nelson, just put on injured reverse. Linebacker Emmanuel Lamur is a sub-package player and Frostee Rucker and Clinton McDonald are rotational linemen.
They may be young, but you can see Guenther’s marks on the Raiders. His starting middle linebacker is a college free agent, just like he helped develop undrafted linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Vincent Rey here. And Zimmer and Guenther always tried to take away the offense’s top weapon. For instance, Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown rarely beat the Bengals and last week Brown had just 35 yards in Oakland’s win. The week before they held Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill to one catch. Tight end Travis Kelce killed them for 168 yards in K.C.’s 40-33 win, but be warned for this Sunday. Bengals leading receiver Tyler Boyd needs help from wide receiver John Ross and tight end C.J. Uzomah.
Guenther doesn’t buy that he and Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor have an edge because they practiced against each other last year.
“Not really,” he said. “When we practiced in training camp it wasn’t like I was paying attention to what they were running as if I were thinking, ‘How would I play our team?’ I was paying more attention to our technique, our alignment. I never studied the offense from a tactical standpoint.”
But he knows the players. Up and down. He didn’t see quarterback Jeff Driskel all that much because of his broken arm last season, but he saw him from all the practices of 2016 and all of 2017 training camp.
“If Jon asks me about the offensive guys,” Guenther says, “I could be in it in it in about five minutes.”
And that’s what he says Sunday is all about. Not Paulie G. vs. Marvin or Guenther vs. Lazor.
“Players,” Guenther said. “They make the plays.”
“It will be weird,’ he said.