CINCINNATI – Cincinnati chili can be an acquired taste. Locals love it, though outsiders can be taken aback by the cocoa and cinnamon inside the concoction, or the fact that it's often served on top of spaghetti, all covered with cheese.
Paul Guenther isn't a huge fan.
"I never got into it," Guenther said. "But my kids were born there and they really like it."
The Raiders defensive coordinator isn't a native, which explains his cautiousness toward the chili, but essentially grew up as an NFL coach in Cincinnati. He was hired as an assistant position coach back in 2005, climbed the ladder and eventually became an accomplished Bengals defensive coordinator. He spent 13 seasons with the Bengals, and stayed there in 2014 despite competing offers to join friends and former co-workers Jay Gruden in Washington and Mike Zimmer in Minnesota.
He stayed put and continued a run of strong Bengals defensive play through 2017, but Jon Gruden's call was too tempting. Guenther was Gruden's first choice to run the Raiders defense upon his return to the Silver and Black, with relative autonomy on that side of the ball. Guenther has say in defensive players signed and drafted, able to construct and develop his unit with players he likes.
Guenther will be given time to improve a unit Raiders unit that has struggled for years and needs major upgrades in the front seven especially.
He started at ground zero with a struggling unit that lost Khalil Mack in September (definitely not his choice), but his unit is making significant strides heading into his homecoming game.
The Raiders play the Bengals on Sunday in Cincinnati, in what will be an emotional moment for the respected defensive coach.
"Naturally. There are people there who were real good to me," Guenther said. "I spent a lot of time with those players and the organization, the Brown family. The coaching staff means a lot to me. They still do.
"But, when toe meets leather at 1 o'clock it's business. I root for those guys every week and I hope they do good except for one game, which is this one."
Guenther stands a solid chance of leaving with a victory if his defense can halt Bengals running back Joe Mixon and athletic quarterback Jeff Driskel. He won't do it with a carbon copy of the scheme he learned and eventually ran in Cincinnati – he has made adjustments to account for lack of talent or consistent production up front, especially – but the concepts are the same.
"They've morphed around defensively this year with the things they're doing, but they've kind of settled in," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis told Bengals reporters this week. "Obviously, he had great experience coaching against Pittsburgh, so I thought they did a nice job of getting guys to understand, and they played well."
The Raiders defense has kicked it up a notch recently. The Raiders are playing far better in the secondary, and are making improvements after struggling mightily against the run. The pass rush remains a problem – Guenther simply doesn't have the horses up front – but Guenther has attempted to help that problem area schematically. That, after all, is what good coaches do.
He gained experience in stops before Cincinnati, but honed his craft as a play designer and play caller wearing orange and black.
"Paul did a fine job here," Lewis said. "Since he came here with us he hustled, did a lot of different things here and did a good job at all of them."