Ed Donatell Is Sticking To His Guns

Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Ed Donatell has coached football for 42 years, longer than Kevin O’Connell, 37, has been alive, including 31 years in the NFL. He broke into the league as a defensive backs coach with the New York Jets in 1990 after coaching in college from 1979 to 1989. Harrison Smith, the second-oldest safety in the league, was born in 1989.

After coaching the secondary for a decade, Donatell got his first defensive coordinator gig with the Green Bay Packers in 2000. Rookie Lewis Cine, who will have to step in for the injured Smith, was born in 1999. Josh Metellus, the Minnesota Vikings’ other depth safety who has to step in for Smith, was born a year earlier. Cameron Dantzler, Minnesota’s polarizing corner, also was born in 1998.

In many ways, Dontatell’s background is similar to former Vikings coach Mike Zimmer’s. Both are from the industrial midwest. Donatell grew up in Akron, Ohio; Zimmer is from Peoria, Ill. Zimmer, 66, is a year older than Donatell and also came up as a defensive backs coach. Like Donatell, he started his coaching career in 1979. Zimmer broke into the league with the Dallas Cowboys in 1994 and became a defensive coordinator in 2000.

But that’s where the comparison ends.

Donatell embraces coaching young players, enthusiastically describing Minnesota’s development programs. Zimmer leaned on young players early in his career, including Smith and Xavier Rhodes. But he relied increasingly on veterans in the latter half of his time with the Vikings. Donatell runs a 3-4; Zimmer a 4-3. Donatell can get prickly, but he typically has the upbeat mien of a coach half his age. He almost comes off as professorial. Zimmer was cantankerous. He makes Clint Eastwood look warm and fuzzy.

“We’re still learning about our team together and what are our strengths and things we need to improve on,” Donatell said at his weekly press conference after the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Vikings 24-7 on Monday night. “What I really liked in that game is our guys came back from a tough half, second half, made the adjustments, and they were able to hold them scoreless and flip the field positions a couple of times with the blocked kick and with the interceptions.

“There’s no question our execution was off in the first half. Part of that was self-inflicted. Us, we need to do better. And part was Philly’s a really good team, and they played well, and they made it hard on us.”

Donatell often speaks of connectedness and learning. He says the way he knows a player is ready is subjective, but he knows. He knows because he’s been coaching longer than they’ve been alive. He’s coached under defensive mastermind Vic Fangio for eight years, starting with the San Francisco 49ers (2011-14), then the Chicago Bears (2015-18), and most recently, the Denver Broncos (2019-21).

He’s done three stints in Denver, two with the Jets, and two with the University of Washington. There have been ups and downs. He won two Super Bowls during his first stint with Denver (1995-98), but the Broncos were mediocre the last three seasons. The Jets were a .500 team during most of his first stint (1990-94) and terrible in his second (2007). He started his career at his alma mater, Kent State. But his second job was at the University of Washington. They went to the Rose Bowl both years he was there (1981-82). But when he returned under Tyrone Willingham in 2008, they went 0-12, and Washington fired the entire coaching staff.

There is little Donatell hasn’t seen or done. He’s complimentary of O’Connell, saying that he’s done a good job getting the team refocused in a positive way and has stayed even-keeled. O’Connell has placed much blame for Monday night’s fiasco on himself. Still, Donatell’s defense allowed Hurts to complete his first 10 passes and Philadelphia to score 24 points in the first half. Cousins also threw two interceptions with excellent field position in the second half and struggled under pressure.

Like O’Connell, Donatell has placed the blame on himself. But he’s also been willing to explain what his players did wrong.

“Not concerned,” he said bluntly when a reporter asked him about the first half in Philadelphia. “Everything is something we can fix, as I mentioned. Certain times you’ll see them make a play. A quarterback will get out and do something. That’s what he does. And then some other things we can fix. We always take a hard look at ourselves. How can we teach it better? What maybe did we miss as a coaching staff to help our players? Our players are really buying in and working hard for us, so we’re just looking for the little things.”

Troy Aikman ripped Donatell’s defense on ESPN’s broadcast of the game, widely influencing the viewing audience. The Hall of Fame quarterback asked why the Vikings were in a shell, allowing Hurts and the Eagles’ offense to get in a rhythm and pick them apart. Donatell refutes that he was using a shell defense.

“First of all, a lot of guys have opinions,” he said, channeling a hint of Zimmer energy. “It really wasn’t a total shell or not. That’s just kind of an overused deal. We had plenty of guys to account for everybody. We just didn’t play our assignments right. So I wouldn’t read too much into that.”

Still, he says that if he could play the game over again, he’d tactically approach it the same way.

“Yeah, take that word out of it,” he said, referring to the term shell. “But again, we want to execute better if we do it again. But anytime we have a setback, we view that as temporary. First thing, what are you gonna learn? What if you had to plan the next day? What would you do differently?

“That’s how we looked at it, and then there is some time that passes in between that, and then we’ll factor that into that.”

Minnesota’s schedule is front-loaded this year. They started with a national game at home against the Green Bay Packers, then had to go to Philly for another primetime game. Escaping 1-1 is a good start. They face Dan Campbell‘s feisty Detroit Lions, who’ve scored 30 points in the last two games, at noon this Sunday. Then the schedule lightens up considerably. It doesn’t look tough right now.

But it has tested a revamped defense with multiple young players on it early. Dantzler blew an assignment on Quez Watkins‘ 53-yard touchdown. Still, his underlying stats indicate he played well otherwise. Regardless, the Vikings chose to sit him out for large portions of the game. Dantzler was a training camp darling in his rookie season but drew Zimmer’s ire last year. A lot of his success this season will be dictated by how much this coaching staff believes in him.

“He was involved in a couple of plays, and the deep play, he wanted to be on top of that,” said Donatell. “But he played hard, and he played tough in that game. You can’t take anything away. We’ll make substitutions different than that. You may see a different young player in certain weeks that we just want to take a look at because our young players are gonna be in there, no matter what. They just have to play during the season, so he’ll play plenty of plays, and we gave him a little rest there, but he’ll be back in there ready to go this week.

“He misread what was in front of him, and the correction has been made. We trust him, and we know he’ll do fine.”

Cine and Metellus will have to step in for Smith, who suffered a concussion against Philadelphia. Cine is particularly intriguing because he played for the University of Georgia’s vaunted defense last year, and the Vikings took him in the first round. He also missed the Packers game with an injury and suddenly may have to play a significant role on Sunday.

“All rookies are always fighting to catch up. I don’t care what’s going on,” says Donatell. “And when you miss time, that compounds it. So he’ll, all rookies will be in a battle until they start next year.

“We’re always playing catch-up. It can be done, we have good teachers around him, but we can never rest because there’s so much work to be done. This league presents so many challenges that are different every week. Unless you have experience, you can’t relate.”

Donatell has the experience, and he’s trying to relate to his guys, even if he’s been coaching longer than they’ve been alive. When he blamed his players, he often did it with the caveat that he needs to teach them more effectively.

For the Vikings to succeed this year, they need O’Connell to translate Sean McVay’s offense to his guys on that side of the ball and Donatell to pass on Fangio’s scheme to Minnesota’s defense. He’ll have to slow down a surging offense for a team that last won a playoff game in 1991, Donatell’s second year in the league, and won its most recent championship the year he was born.

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