NAPA – Paul Guenther breaks the offseason and training camp into three phases. He installs the new Raiders defense in each one. Repetition, it seems, leads to mastery.
The last phase starts in training camp, but the final installation runs unlike the previous two.
Lectures are over. In Napa, students become the teacher. Guenther randomly calls players to the front of the class to decipher plays and call out the adjustments required to make them work well.
Guenther’s teaching methods have worked well. Scheme retention was strong following a summer off, a positive that allowed the Raiders to hit the ground running in training camp.
That’s no easy task. Guenther’s defense is vast, loaded with plays that include deception and disguise. It’s well respected, with a long track record of success. It doesn’t matter, Guenther says, if he can’t transfer his knowledge to those who execute.
“Football is a simple game made complicated by coaches,” Guenther said on this week’s Raiders Insider Podcast. “You have to teach the system in a way that all 11 guys understand everyone else is doing. You can’t exist in the little world of your position group. They have to know how others fit around them. If they understand why I’m making calls, and what everyone is supposed to do, then they can make in-game adjustments on Sundays. We need to be fast-minded. The only way you can play fast is to have the system down.”
Players rave about Guenther the teacher. Derrick Johnson called him a mastermind. Leon Hall says players learn well because he can identify with every position group.
Marcus Gilchrist enters the season with his fourth team and fifth defensive coordinator. The safety knows the importance of getting a message across, and considers Guenther great at it.
“Probably one of the best ones I’ve been around in my eight years,” he said. “Getting guys to understand whatever their role is on this defense or a certain coverage, whatever scheme that it is, probably the best that I’ve been around at getting guys to learn a scheme and being able to teach it the right way.”
Guenther can sense when somebody doesn’t get it, even when they’re unwilling to raise a hand.
“If there’s a look of uncertainty on your face or in your body language, he’s going to see it and help you understand it,” weakside linebacker Tahir Whitehead said. “He’s not just going to give you a coaching point and then back off and expect you to have it. He wants you to think the way he’s thinking. He wants us to take ownership of the scheme.”
The scheme works. It came from Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati and refined by Guenther the past four seasons.
Zimmer was his biggest influence, someone who helped establish his own defensive philosophy.
“He’s incredibly smart,” Zimmer said in March. “He was able to add to the things we did in Cincinnati, and was creative finding new ways to get the job done.”
Guenther thrived on his own, after Zimmer left to become Minnesota's head coach in 2014. The Bengals finished in the top half in scoring defense each year under Guenther, with two campaigns in the top 10.
The Raiders, by contrast, never finished above 20th in that same span.
Guenther is equal parts tactician, motivator and college professor, with a track record of success unknown in these parts over the last decade.
Head coach Jon Gruden has given Guenther relative autonomy over the defense, with control to implement the scheme and arrange the depth chart. Guenther had a chance to leave Cincinnati in 2014, with offers to join Zimmer in Minnesota or Jay Gruden in Washington. He stayed home then, but felt it time to move on with Jon Gruden came calling. Guenther was part of the Gruden package, and is an integral part of this coaching staff.
Guenther and Jon Gruden are close friends, but have developed a rivalry that ratchets up practice intensity.
“Coach Gruden is on me all the time instilling that, ‘I want to kick Coach Guenther’s butt every day,’” quarterback Derek Carr said. “I think he wants to embarrass us as well. That little rivalry, that little work is the same. But you’ll see us all three at dinner together – we’re a team – but it definitely helps us come the season.
“…Ask any quarterback in the NFL, Coach Guenther is one of the best in the NFL and it’s not even close. He gives you the most problems, he presents the most challenges, he makes you think more than anybody. He’s one of the best and I’m glad he’s here.”
Guenther doesn’t blitz much but disguises his intentions well and works to find favorable matchups for his best players. He wants to establish a tough defense that knows its stuff. That’s why teaching the scheme right in the offseason and training camp is vital to regular-season success.
“We’re going to be a physical team,” Guenther said. “When you come to play the Raiders, you’d better pack a lunch pail. We’re going to be smart situationally, we’re going to create turnovers and we’re going to get after the quarterback. I grew up watching the old Raiders defenses. I’m trying to get us back to that.”