The 44-year-old coach's immediate challenge for this season will be to overcome the recent rash of injuries and inconsistencies that the Packer defense has encountered. The unit has gone without as many as four starters in recent weeks and has given up season highs in total yardage against the Falcons (417 on Nov. 18) and the Titans (423 on Dec. 16).
"I think our coaches on defense, and it was evident last year, when we have an injury, there are no excuses made about anything," said head coach Mike Sherman. "We just have to go, and we have to make it work. I have to credit Ed and our defensive staff for absorbing the injuries as they come up and getting people ready to play."
Third-round draft pick Bhawoh Jue is one of those players filling an injured position and doing a nice job. Jue took over at safety against the Falcons after defensive leader LeRoy Butler was lost for the season.
"He (Donatell) has been able to hold us together and keep us believing that we can do it and that we can go ahead and plug anybody in the system and keep the train moving," said Jue. "He really has us believing that we can put anybody in there."
Many of the Packer defensive players are in agreement that Donatell has them extremely well prepared for each game. Based on the results over the course of the season, it would be hard to argue against the majority.
Through 13 games, the Packers were ranked sixth in total defense among the 31 NFL teams. That ranking is based on the 290.3 yards per game that the Packers had given up. They were also ranked in the top 10 in run defense at 96.6 yards per game, and were sixth in both scoring defense (17.0 points given up per game) and fewest touchdowns allowed (23). Most impressively, perhaps, is that the Packer defense had accumulated 46 sacks, second in the league behind the Saints, when the pass rush was a major concern headed into this season.
While numbers are a good barometer of what Donatell's defense has accomplished, he prefers to use a different measurement when comparing this year to last.
"I evaluate progress in team wins," he said. "You go out every week and see what you can do together with the offense to win a game. As a group of guys, the production of the pass rush has gone up. Those guys have developed. Kabeer (Gbaja-Biamila) has developed himself. That's helped us. Vonnie Holliday's having a really good year, and then the linebacker group, they're in year two, so there's so much more exchange and communication going on. That's why you can see a guy miss a week and still go out and play well. I'm sure there's improvement, it's really just something you'll think about later." Many of the defensive unit's numbers in major statistical categories are better or rival those of the 1996 and 1997 Super Bowl teams. The '96 Super Bowl Championship defense finished the regular season No. 1 in the NFL and is considered one of the best units in franchise history.
Donatell has furthermore had success without any players widely regarded as true superstars around the league. Safeties Darren Sharper and LeRoy Butler can stake a claim to that title, but the defensive success has truly been a balanced, united effort. Donatell's aggressive, blitzing, gap-control schemes require that players rely on each other.
"The beauty of what's happened is the fact that I've kept, and purposely so, more defensive lineman alive for us," said Sherman in regard to maintaining success even with injuries. "We've went into every game except one with eight... I've kept our numbers up there, and that has allowed us to absorb some of these injuries we've had. The defensive backs, however, we have not been quite as fortunate. We have to go outside and get some guys, and I think part of that is that we've been very actively searching for guys."
A conscientious student
Being around defensive minds like Floyd Peters, Pete Carroll, and Greg Robinson certainly had an influence on Donatell, who spent 11 years coaching in the college ranks before breaking into the NFL in 1990. He has received high marks from his former coaches for his diligence and thoroughness, and spending time on highly-productive staffs played a large part in him coming to Green Bay.
Donatell was not necessarily well-known around the league prior to becoming defensive coordinator with the Packers in 2000, though he had received defensive coordinator offers from other teams. Former Packer general manager Ron Wolf and Sherman knew him well, however, and had him targeted. Wolf was the general manager of the Jets when Donatell coached there (1990-94), and Sherman liked what he saw of the Broncos' defense in Super Bowl XXXII when he served as the tight ends coach with the Packers. The Broncos used a variety of blitzes, two which forced turnovers, to stun the Packers, 31-24, in a Super Bowl upset. Two years later, the Broncos' defense did it again to the Packers, forcing Brett Favre into arguably the worst game of his career – a 7 for 23, 120-yard, three-interception debacle in a 31-10 loss at Denver.
Of course Donatell was the defensive backs coach for the Broncos at the time, a position he played at Glenville State (West Virginia) during his playing days. He had, however, a nine-year relationship with Broncos' defensive coordinator Greg Robinson up until that Super Bowl. Robinson was hired along with Donatell by the Jets in 1990 and by the Broncos in 1995, thus the two followed similar career paths and philosophies. They both revamped the Jets and Broncos' defenses and made them vastly improved units.
Now Donatell has done it by himself with the Packers – improving a defense which was suspect under Emmitt Thomas in 1999. He is a perfect fit for Sherman's insistent week-by-week approach to each season and has picked up on a few basic principles in his two years as a coordinator.
"I've learned to listen to your teachers, you're always a student, and involve everybody," he said.
Sharper has even gone as far as calling Donatell a "savior" for jump-starting the Pro Bowl safety's career after a disastrous 1999 campaign. Such remarks would appear to indicate that Donatell should be a prime candidate in the near future to take on the role of head coach. This off-season does not figure to see too many head coaching vacancies as compared to past years, but Donatell may be considered one of the candidates for any opening. He is not thinking about that now, however, focusing on what is ahead for the Packers.
"I think when you sit down in the off-season, look at your yearly goals and so forth, those might be goals of yours," he said, "but every ounce of energy right now is into finishing this thing for this team because this is a great opportunity."