CINCINNATI – After more than a decade of waiting in the wings, Bengals assistant coach Paul Guenther will finally get his chance to lead an NFL defense.
The 42-year-old former linebackers coach was promoted Thursday to the defensive coordinator position, a day after outgoing coordinator Mike Zimmer resigned to take the head coaching job with the Vikings.
A news conference to formally introduce Guenther was held Thursday morning at Paul Brown Stadium.
“I’m obviously very excited about this opportunity,” said Guenther, who cut his teeth in the profession in 1997 as a 25-year-old head coach at Ursinus College, a Division III school. He played linebacker at the school from 1990-93.
“I like the players we have and what we’ve already done to get a good defensive team in place," he commented on the state of the team. "I’m looking forward to working with all of them, in a new role for me, and continuing to improve us and make us better."
Guenther, who has also coached defensive backs and special teams with the Bengals, said the past two seasons he spent directing the linebackers put him in a good position to take control of the entire defense.
“As a coach of the linebackers you have to know both the run game and the pass game, so that’s an advantage to me,” said Guenther, a native of Richboro, Pa.
He also believes the team he spent coaching offense was invaluable to his development as a budding mastermind on defense.
As paradoxical as it might sound, Guenther said his two years on Redskins’ coaching staff helped him develop a firm understanding of NFL defenses by looking at them from the other point of view. He learned much of what he knows from former Redskins coach Steve Spurrier and fellow assistant Hue Jackson.
Jackson was named the Bengals’ offensive coordinator last week.
“When I was coaching the running backs alongside Hue Jackson, I really had a chance to learn a lot about defense by seeing it from the other side,” said Guenther, who served as an offensive assistant/quality control coach in Washington, D.C. from 2002-03. “I knew if I ever got a chance to coach the defense I’d have a good understanding of what’s going on."
Guenther got that chance when he came to Cincinnati in 2005 to serve under Lewis, who left the Redskins in 2002 after a one-year stint as team's defensive coordinator.
“Paul and I have been mostly together since when we were both on the Redskins staff. I’ve seen him grow over the years and really have sort of been grooming him for this kind of opportunity,” said Lewis, who credits Guenther with playing a key role in turning around a struggling defense.
“He knows what we do and how we do it, and he had a hand in creating it,” Lewis said.
Since moving to the Queen City in 2005, Guenther has served as a key aid to the Bengals' defensive coordinators. When Zimmer took over control of the team’s defense in 2008, he helped put in place a system that led the Bengals to playoff berths in four of the last five years.
Last season, as the Bengals finished 11-5 to win the AFC North Division championship, the defense ranked first in the AFC and third in the NFL in fewest yards allowed (305.5), despite suffering significant major injuries. The team also tied for fifth in the NFL in fewest points allowed (19.1).
In 2012, the Bengals ranked sixth in net defense and eighth in scoring defense.
Lewis spoke highly of Guenther for his role in the development of 2013 Pro Bowler Vontaze Burfict, who joined the Bengals in 2012 as an undrafted free agent. Through working with Guenther, the former Arizona State standout has turned himself into one of the NFL’s most prolific tacklers, including a league-leading 171 combined tackles this season.
Also in 2013, the Bengals saw the emergence of third-year linebacker Vincent Rey, another original college free-agent signee who Guenther helped convert from a prospect into a solid pro.
In addition to molding young talent, Guenther oversaw the continued development of several veterans including Rey Maualuga and 35-year-old newcomer James Harrison, who was released by the Steelers prior to joining the Bengals in the preseason.
With many of the building blocks of those defense still in places, Lewis wanted to make sure one of the architects who designed it was around to ensure it wouldn't collapse.
“Paul has been Zim’s right-hand man the last few years, so we’re moving in the direction of keeping a good thing going with our defense,” Lewis said.
While the Bengals' top man is happy there’s a line of continuity in the defense, he charged Guenther with putting his own “stamp” on the defense – a challenge Guenther embraces.
“I’m not Mike Zimmer. I’m Paul Guenther. I've got some things I want to put in place and I need to put my stamp on the way we do things here,”
Whether or not Guenther would implant his strategies in Cincinnati wasn't always a certainty. While he was the odds-on favorite to get the job with the Bengals as soon as the news broke that Zimmer had decided to leave town, there were no guarantees he'd even return to the them.
There was some speculation that Guenther was being courted by Zimmer to take over the defensive coordinator position in Minnesota.
"We've talked briefly. He's kind of mad at me right now," Guenther said after saying no to his mentor's invitation.
Rumors also surfaced that he was the top candidate for the same position in Washington, D.C. under former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, who was named head coach of the Redskins a week earlier.
The loss of Guenther would have put the team in a rare position regarding team leadership. The Bengals were the first team since since 2006 (San Diego Chargers) to lose both coordinators to head coaching jobs elsewhere in the same offseason, according to STATS LLC.
In the end, Guenther decided his time wasn't up in Cincinnati, a place he spent the previous nine years cultivating young players, creating a defense scheme and developing on- and off-field relationships.
He cited his young family, a love of the city and gratitude to Lewis, team owner Mike Brown and the Bengals organization as some of his reasons for staying put. But Guenther also said he felt as though he owed it to his players.
“These guys have worked so hard over the years and deserve some continuity,” he said. "We expect big things again next season."