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Common ground

Posted Jan 16, 2014

Paul Guenther, the new Bengals defensive coordinator, is his own man. But he's got a lot in common with the coach that helped shape that man.


Paul Guenther

Paul Guenther thinks Mike Zimmer is mad at him.

Zimmer, the new Vikings head coach, hoped Guenther would join him in Minnesota as his defensive coordinator. After all, Guenther had been his eyes on game day and right hand during the week in this stretch producing the best Bengals defense ever. But there was Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis on Thursday introducing Guenther as Zimmer's successor, the fourth defensive coordinator in the dozen seasons of the Marvin Lewis era.

"We've talked briefly. He's kind of mad at me right now, so you've got to understand that," Guenther said after his news conference that was more of a water break than introductory as he begins his 10th season on Lewis's staff. "Hopefully when everything kind of calms down and I see him in Mobile or Indianapolis or when he gets back in town, or wherever, I'm sure we'll sit down and talk. I don't want to ruin a relationship with Mike and I don’t think he does either."

Of course not. Guenther, 42, spent a good deal of his presser emphasizing that he's his own man and not a Zimmer Xerox 15 years younger. And there are vast differences,

Zimmer is Midwest terse, hard-bitten as a frozen prairie. Guenther is East Coast voluble with an intensity clicking into ease as quickly as a New York cab ride. But they also have a field as long as 100 yards in common.

Truth be told, Zimmer doesn't seem mad. He texted a mutual acquaintance Wednesday night and said Guenther would be fine and that he and the players can keep it going straight.

Turns out, they've got more than a lot in common. Both grew up sons of coaches. Both suffered traumatic deaths of loved ones while serving together in Cincinnati. Both have a pull of loyalty that has shone through the last few days with Zimmer immediately turning to his son to join his staff in Minnesota and Guenther staying with the team, coach and owner that gave him his start in the NFL in 2005 as a staff assistant. As well as his family of a wife and grade-school sons.

And Guenther had options beyond Minnesota. Jay Gruden, his Carlo and Johnny dinner partner of the past three years and workout mate, reached out in Washington. Another team Guenther wouldn't name surfaced on Tuesday. It was not going to be a typical first-year coordinator contract. The salary would have to be big and Bengals president Mike Brown, who puts his highest prices on continuity, didn't blink as the games began.

In fact, when Zimmer zeroed in on his contract in Minnesota on Wednesday morning, Guenther got a call at home from  Brown and got an immediate invite to his office, where Brown informed him he was "not leaving the floor" until he had signed on as coordinator.

"I don’t have to move my kids, my wife, we know the organization here, we like the city. So yeah, that had a lot to do with it," Guenther said. "I love working for Mike Brown. He gets a bad rap, to be honest with you. At least from when I first got here. People misunderstand him. He’s a very loyal man; he’s a very fair man. He’s fun to talk to when I go up and meet with him. My relationship has grown over the course of the years with Mike, and I really cherish the relationship."

Much like the thoughts of Mike and Adam Zimmer the past few exhilarating days that have focused on their wife and mother who passed so suddenly in Cincinnati during the 2009 season, Guenther was thinking of his father.

He goes by Paulie G. to his friends, and his father was Paul, a longtime Pop Warner coach for the North Hampton Indians in suburban Philadelphia while working for Bell Telephone during the day. He was the line coach for the big team, the 125-pounders, but Paulie played right away at five and six and worked his way up to play for his father's team at 13 and 14. But he remembers the rides to those big-kid games as a tyke, sitting in the back, listening to his dad and the other coaches.

"They'd go out on Friday nights and scout games and that was a big night out; I grew up with it," Guenther said. "I was a fullback, tight end, linebacker. My dad's baby was the offensive line."

He would grow up and go 16-0 on that 125-pound team and become a lifelong friend of one of the other coaches on that team, John Donohue, a guy Guenther calls his brother as well as the godfather of one of his sons.

"There's a guy, you never knew what he'd do. It was great. He'd onside kick you at any time," Guenther said. "That's when I got into it. When I got to be 13 and 14, I was thinking, this football thing is something I can really get into."

Guenther gets a Donohue-like glint in his eye when he talks about blitzing. Zimmer isn't a big blitzer. Oh, he mixes up the five-man pressures with the four-mans often enough, but he doesn't all-out blitz much. Guenther? He smiles when asked about it.

If there's one thing he's learned from Lewis and Zimmer it is how to attack protections. And Guenther got the hang of it so well that Zimmer made him responsible for much of the nickel package, a key part of this season's overall No. 3 ranking in NFL defense. The Bengals finished second in third-down percentage. But Guenther says it's not a matter of liking to blitz or not liking to blitz. It is sitting in the press box every Sunday wired into Zimmer, reading tendencies and anticipating calls.

"It depends on the situation. It depends on the team you're playing," Guenther said. "The thing with Zim is I got to know him so well, I knew what was coming out of his mouth 90-95 percent of the time. It's great to be able to get to know a guy like that and learn like that. There were times he told me to shut up. When he told me to shut up, that meant he had a thought."

They have been connected by much more than headsets. It is sad, but the defining moment of Zimmer's career came at its lowest moment. The game in Baltimore in 2009 when he coached less than 72 hours after he found his wife of 27 years inexplicably lifeless at age 50. It showed his supreme toughness and passion while displaying how much the players cared about him because with 10 minutes left the Bengals were out of it and they needed the last 22 seconds to win it for him.

When Lewis gave Zimmer the game ball in the locker room right after it was over, the emotionally-spent Zimmer thanked the team "for playing so hard." It was Guenther that found a ball and gave it to Lewis. While Guenther and Lewis were walking off the field in the madness of a wild finish, they talked about how they had to do something for Zimmer, that the game ball was perfect, and Guenther got one.

Then a year later Paul Guenther's battle with heart problems ended at age 79. It was the end of Paulie G.'s annual summer trip back home to Philly. The old line coach succumbed only at the end of their monthlong vacation.

"Zim and I have been through a lot more than football, I can tell you that," Guenther said.

Ask him what the Bengals need to improve and he's got a tart response worthy of Zimmer. The three playoff losses have been marred by uncharacteristic sloppy play against the run as quickly as you can say Arian Foster and Ronnie Brown.

"If you look at the past couple of years, the thing that has been the most disappointing to me has been teams have been able to run the ball," Guenther said. "There’s something there we have to fix when it comes down to every play and it matters.”

Another big thing Zimmer and Guenther have in common is they've both worked many years for Lewis. And that's a big deal because the only time Lewis hired a first-time NFL coordinator, Leslie Frazier in his first two seasons, it didn't work. Part of the reason was Frazier came out of a different school of thought. Lewis's next hire, Chuck Bresnahan, an import from Oakland, didn't work, either.

But Lewis and Zimmer have groomed Guenther, which should prevent those being-on-the-same-page problems that plagued the defense before Zimmer arrived in 2008. Lewis agrees it's a different situation.

"No doubt. He’s come up through our system, so we just move forward and move on," Lewis said. "The revisions and things we want to improve on in the offseason, we keep moving forward in that. We are not having to start anything from scratch that way."

Lewis, a guy who made the transition himself from a linebackers coach to defensive coordinator 18 years ago, says he won't involve himself any more in the defense now that Zimmer is gone.

"I am not going to interject myself any further that way, but I am the sounding board and the right of last refusal on everything in every area," Lewis said. "So that’s not going to change. I am involved in the game-planning each and every week."

While Zimmer commiserated twice with one of his mentors the day he got hired, Hall of Famer Bill Parcells, Lewis gave Guenther some advice he got from a man who should be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in two weeks.

"I’m going to tell him what Tony Dungy told me: 'Sometimes they might make a yard.' Move on. Make a tackle, move on," Lewis said. "That’s the best piece of advice Tony Dungy gave me in February (1996). They might make a yard every once in a while. Make a tackle, move on. He’s so right. That’s the thing that I learned. Your job as the defensive coordinator is to get your guys off the field. That’s your job. Nothing else matters. Get your guys as quickly as possible off the field, without the offense scoring. No other stat matters other than that. I always remember that time with Tony.”

Guenther is careful not to get hooked into any comparisons. Particularly with Zimmer's force-of-nature personality.

"I’ve got to be myself. My job is to get the other team off the field," Guenther said. "Whether I spin on my head and spit nickels or start yelling and screaming. One way or another, I’ve got to be myself, I’ve got to run the job like I know how to run it. Guys get in these positions as head coaches and coordinators and then all of a sudden they change their personalities and say, ‘I’m going to be this that or the other,’ and players see through that. All the way."

But if there is that glimmer of John Donohue, there is also that strain of Zimmer even if the cover is different.

"(Guenther) does a good job of translating everything he knows to language that is easy for you to understand," said cornerback Leon Hall, which is a Zimmer trait. "The personality is different. He's more happy-go-lucky than Zimmer. (But) every time he comes up and speaks in front of us, everyone pays attention. There's no dip as far as the amount of respect we have for him compared to some of the other coaches."

And, yes, Guenther can throw around some profanity in the best Zimmer rant.

"Did you watch ‘Hard Knocks’? That’s all I ever hear about," Guenther said of a few profane moments from the last training camp.

"I got them in my back pocket. Pull them out when ready."

Zimmer is gone and Paulie G. is here. But he didn't take everything up north.

 

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