Paul Guenther sees Raiders' defense progress after hardest coaching year


Paul Guenther sees Raiders' defense progress after hardest coaching year

Paul Guenther watched his first Raiders defense fall apart before him.

Key veterans disappeared in what felt like a Thanos snap, disintegrating before the defensive coordinator had a real chance to deploy them.

Khalil Mack was a ghost, never once working with Guenther before he was traded to Chicago. Justin Ellis got hurt. Then Derrick Johnson left and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie retired. Bruce Irvin grew pouty and eventually cut with no takers at the trade deadline.

The Raiders' defensive coordinator was left with a skeleton crew that wasn’t intimidating a full strength and, if we can extend the Avengers analogy one step farther, couldn’t sneak through the Quantum Realm to make it all right again.

He had to weather an awful season where all the struggles, all the points allowed made 2018 “by far my hardest year in coaching."

The Raiders gave up nearly 30 points per game and a shocking 6.3 yards per play, both NFL lows. They had just 13 sacks, a full 17 lower than the next team and one of smallest totals in league history over 16 games.

Guenther was certainly frustrated by such lack of production from the same playbook that worked so well in Cincinnati. He wasn’t used to this, and said so several times late in the season.

It wasn’t a line. The Bengals were consistently good under his coordination. And here’s a hard truth for any play-caller: A coach can only do so much. Talent and depth are required for success. The Raiders didn’t have enough of either, and that’s not Guenther’s fault.

These struggles were new and at times maddening, but defenders take their cues from their coach. Frustrations had to be kept at bay, with Guenther’s eyes only on tasks at hand and making the most of each opportunity.

“Ultimate professional. That’s just the way I would describe him,” linebacker Tahir Whitehead said. “He came in, you could never really tell that it was hard for him. He just kept at it, kept coaching, kept making sure that we were prepared in every way, shape or form and just kept giving it his all. We never wavered, just kept showing up every day even though the results weren’t what we wanted. We still showed up every day and gave it our all.”

That’s proof Guenther found a proper mindset, one set in the present while using the experience to learn and grow and improve down the line.

“Going through a year like that and understanding, 'hey, this is what it was like, only helped me as a coach,'” he said. “It’s something that you don’t always want to go through, having a rough year like we did, but obviously you start to learn how to build these things. How to build your lineup card and what it should look like and how you envisioned it. That was the positive for me.

“I always tell the players, if you don’t learn from failure, you’re making a mistake. You have to learn from what we did good and what we did bad and build off of that in the future.”

Guenther took the offseason to decompress, recalibrate and add some new wrinkles to his defense. He got trusted field general Vontaze Burfict to help run the show, with an improved secondary, linebacker depth and more young pass rushers off the edge.

“I just felt like the kind of players we were looking for, we’ve added a lot of those guys throughout the draft and free agency,” Guenther said. “We got guys that kind of fit what we’re doing. Right now in the NFL everyone [is saying,] ‘Oh, we’re going to surprise everybody.’ And all these great predictions. Right now everybody feels great about their team. I’m just trying to get them better every day.”

The Raiders defense has more talent than a year ago, with no signs of attrition or controversy to disrupt this year’s work. Guenther’s unit should be better in 2019, with a full understanding that more defensive upgrades and in-house player development are required to reach lofty standards and ultimate goals.

Last year was hard on every defender, but there’s optimism that progress has been made and better is on the immediate horizon.

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“It was a tough season, obviously,” defensive tackle Maurice Hurst said. “We had a lot of bodies coming in and out of our locker room and it can be extremely tough to put in new defenses and get guys that come in and have to play after sitting on a couch, or whatever. You don’t grow chemistry, you don’t trust one another, so there wasn’t that trust factor that we are starting to develop. We got some great leaders, guys that have played in Super Bowls, guys that have been on winning teams and winning defenses.

"So, I think you just put that all together, and their standard, and make it our own, it’s going to be something special.”

Raiders' Jon Gruden ranked as 15th-best veteran head coach by


Raiders' Jon Gruden ranked as 15th-best veteran head coach by

Just win, baby.

Twice in his career, Jon Gruden has been given that directive as head coach of the Oakland Raiders. He was considerably more successful the first time around.

Gruden never finished below .500 in his first go-around with the Raiders, but in making his return to the franchise last year, he led Oakland to a 4-12 record -- tied for the worst record in the AFC.

Right after Gruden signed a 10-year, $100 million contract to move out of the Monday Night Football booth and back to the sidelines, many questioned whether his time away from coaching would put him behind the eight-ball. Given how the Raiders performed last season, it didn't exactly silence that noise.

And yet, at least one analyst believes Gruden is still an above-average coach.'s Elliot Harrison ranked the 32 NFL head coaches Monday, and Gruden came in at No. 15.

Here's what Harrison had to say about Chucky:

"As [Gruden] shipped out star players and cut ties with front office execs he didn't want in Oakland last year, the Raiders managed just four wins. That's why '19 should be the tell on what kind of coach he is going forward. New GM Mike Mayock helped Gruden begin to rebuild the roster after stockpiling picks, providing an infusion of talent that should at least make this team more competitive. Given the strength of the division-rival Chargers and Chiefs, simply leading Oakland to the playoffs should be a ringing endorsement for the coach."

[RELATED: Raiders given 20th best outlook in future power rankings]

Indeed, if they make the playoffs this coming season, that's an undeniable success for Gruden and the Raiders in their final season in Oakland -- one that would be worthy of Gruden ascending on next year's coaching rankings. But, as Harrison suggests, it's not going to be easy.

Future NFL power rankings: Raiders given 20th best short-term outlook


Future NFL power rankings: Raiders given 20th best short-term outlook

How bright is the future for the Raiders?

Well, according to the good folks over at ESPN, it could be a little brighter.

On Tuesday, ESPN published its "Future NFL Power Rankings," which ranks the outlook of all 32 teams over the next three years.

And the Raiders came in at ...


No. 20.

Hey, for a team that went 4-12 a season ago, it could be worse. 

The Colts, Patriots, Eagles, Chiefs and Seahawks made up the top five.

ESPN ranked each team based on its roster (minus the quarterback), head coach, front office, quarterback and draft to determine their outlook for the next three campaigns.

The Raiders checked in at

  • Roster (minus QB): 20
  • Front office: 15
  • Head coach: 17
  • Draft: 17
  • Quarterback: 25

Well, not a rosy outlook for Derek Carr.

Field Yates, Louis Riddick and Kevin Seifert all believe the Raiders' outlook will be determined by whether or not the Carr-Gruden connection is a fruitful one. In Year 1 of Gruden's second reign with the Raiders, Carr had a rough year. With a lack of offensive weapons and a line that had issues with the zone blocking tendencies, Carr only threw for 4,049 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Carr has shown he has the ability to be a top-tier quarterback, and with the weapons, the Raiders collected in the offseason, 2019 could be a different story.

[RELATED: How Raiders' defense stacks up against rest of AFC West]

Riddick lauded the Raiders' draft picks and offseason moves. Oakland added Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Trent Brown, Josh Jacobs, Ryan Grant and Hunter Renfrow on offense. Lamarcus Joyner, Clelin Ferrell, Johnathan Abram and Trayvon Mullen came in to help a defense that was awful last season.

Things are looking up for the Silver and Black. If Carr can rediscover his MVP-level form, good times could be on the horizon.