It’s Guenther’s time now
CINCINNATI — Paul Guenther tossed and turned a lot while trying to get some sleep this week. He had a lot on his mind, some good and some bad.
The good was that he had three offers to move up in the NFL coaching world and become a defensive coordinator. The bad is that he was going to have to say "no" to some people, some close friends.
Guenther eventually said yes to the Bengals, the organization he’s been a part of since 2004 and that has brought him along the coaching trail, developing him for this opportunity. He said no to Washington and Minnesota, where former Bengals colleagues Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer are now head coaches.
"Good because you had an opportunity one way or another, and bad because there’s relationships involved, there’s friendships involved," said Guenther as he spoke with a few reporters in the locker room at Paul Brown Stadium Thursday afternoon shortly after being introduced as Zimmer’s replacement.
"There’s a lot of things involved."
In some aspects Guenther, 42, is a gamble for the position. He’s never called defenses before at the NFL level. He’s only been a position coach for two years. That’s a quick timeframe for someone taking over a defense that has become one of the NFL’s top units the past six seasons.
Then again, Guenther has been right in the middle of the development of this defense even if he wasn’t out in front of it. Coaching is in his blood — he is a cousin of Villanova men’s basketball coach Jay Wright and both of their fathers were coaches. He’s had the experience of being a college head coach at the age of 25. It might have been at Division III Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa., but the situations he faced there and at every step along the way have groomed him. He and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis first met when both were on Steve Spurrier’s staff in Washington in 2002.
"It is a quick rise," admitted Lewis. "Every opportunity I’ve had to advance his career, I’ve advanced Paul’s career from working with Darrin (Simmons) on special teams to moving back into the secondary to becoming the linebacker coach, he’s had this opportunity. I’ve been training him for this day, literally."
It’s a similar career path Lewis took. After a decade of being an assistant coach at various college programs, Lewis got his first NFL job coaching linebackers for Pittsburgh under head coach Bill Cowher and defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Lewis became Baltimore’s defensive coordinator four seasons later.
Just as Lewis planned ahead for the possibility of losing Gruden as his offensive coordinator by having Hue Jackson on staff to take his place, he’s had to plan for the loss of Zimmer. Promoting Guenther was as much of a no-brainer for Lewis as it was to promote Jackson. The only difference is that Jackson has experience calling plays in a game.
Calling plays was one of Zimmer’s strengths.
"As the defensive coordinator, by Sunday afternoon you are no longer the defensive coordinator but you are the offensive coordinator for the other club," said Lewis. "You’ve got to assume that position. You’ve got to through telepathy. You’ve got to understand them better than they understand themselves. Mike was excellent at that. Going forward, that’s going to be the challenge of Paul in this situation in this role. He’s not been that."
Guenther was in the press box communicating with Zimmer, down on the sidelines, during games the past few seasons.
"What a lot of people don’t understand is there is a lot of communication going on every play," said Guenther. "What do you like here? What do you like there? To be honest with you, I could sit up in the press box and probably 95 percent of the time know what is going to come out of (Zimmer’s) mouth. Being around the guy and understanding how he calls the game, certain situations, you know it. It’s just a matter of going out there and doing it. To me it will be all right."
The basics of the Bengals’ defense won’t change. Guenther helped Zimmer shape the defense. The linebackers have excelled under his tutelage the last couple of seasons. Vontaze Burfict has gone from undrafted free agent to Pro Bowl selection in just two seasons. Burfict has led the Bengals in tackles both of his seasons and led the NFL in tackles this season.
Guenther and his wife will be guests of Burfict next week in Hawaii as he prepares for the Pro Bowl.
Part of Zimmer’s lengthy success as a coach has been his ability to form strong, solid relationships with his players. Guenther has quickly developed a similar reputation. It’s one of the reasons why the Bengals were quick to promote him.
I’m not Mike Zimmer. I’m Paul Guenther and I get to put my own stamp on things.
-- Paul Guenther, new Bengals defensive coordinator
"I’m not Mike Zimmer. I’m Paul Guenther and I get to put my own stamp on things," said Guenther. "I think the world of Zim. I actually want to congratulate him on his opportunity at Minnesota. That’s number one. He’s got his own personality and I’ve got my own personality. I’ve got to be myself. I’ve got to coach the guys the best I know how and not try to be somebody else."