Paul Guenther is hoping John Pagano will be his Tony Dungy.
Guenther is the Raiders’ new defensive coordinator under head coach Jon Gruden. Gruden owns a Super Bowl ring, mostly because the last time he coached in Oakland, he soon found himself in the catbird’s seat when then-owner Al Davis traded him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002.
That Bucs team had one of the greatest and most revolutionary defenses in NFL history. It was designed by Dungy, Gruden’s predecessor in Tampa, and it helped Gruden exact revenge against the Raiders by throttling them in the Super Bowl.
Now Gruden has arrived for Act II, and one of his first moves was hiring Guenther, who most recently was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati.
If the situation that greets Guenther in Alameda is less than dire, the thanks must go to Pagano. Not a job, because there has been no indication Pagano will join Gruden’s staff. But lots and lots of thanks.
It was Pagano who found the keys to unlocking the Oakland defense last season. If Guenther can locate that keychain — perhaps it’s buried next to Tony Sparano’s football — he may be on his way to coordinating a Raiders rebirth.
I spoke briefly to Guenther over prime rib in the Raiders’ dining hall on Jan. 9, the day Gruden descended from the heavens to take his rightful place at team headquarters. But that was mere chitchat. Wednesday, Guenther engaged in his first real dialogue with Bay Area reporters, on a conference call arranged by the Raiders.
He spoke with a bit of the swagger that has made Gruden a legend on both the sidelines and the TV screen.
“I do want to say Cincinnati made a strong push to keep me there, but the opportunity to come out here with Jon and start this thing from the ground up was way too intriguing, and I just looked at it as an opportunity I couldn’t refuse,” Guenther said.
The new defensive coordinator said he has watched all of the Raiders videotape from 2017, and can use it as a “thermometer” to gauge the unit’s health. That’s a hard instrument to interpret, though, because the thermometer offered such different readings throughout the season.
Over the first 10 games, when Ken Norton Jr. was running the defense, it was a leaky dam. The Raiders generated little pass rush, failed to intercept a single pass (a record for futility to start an NFL season) and had a hard time getting off the field, which is something defenses generally like to do.
Then Pagano took over. Head coach Jack Del Rio dismissed Norton on Nov. 21, following an embarrassing loss to the Patriots in Mexico City, and installed Pagano, whose primary job to that point had been standing just behind Norton and breathing on his neck.
Midseason coaching changes, at any level of the hierarchy, are rarely effective. That’s especially true at the coordinator positions, because you can’t exactly take a red pen to the playbook and move around all the Xs and Os with no time for installation. Pagano didn’t try for an overhaul. He just tinkered a bit. And yet he somehow reinvented the Oakland defense. It was like everyone on that side of ball opened a can of spinach in Week 12.