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.”