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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Judd Zulgad

Zulgad: Vikings’ Ed Donatell has his head buried in the Pollyanna playbook

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Kevin O’Connell has made it clear since being hired as the Vikings’ coach in February that accountability will be key, that responsibility for any problems that arise falls on leadership and that adaptability is of the utmost importance.

So how on earth did he end up hiring Ed Donatell as his defensive coordinator?

The simple answer is that as the Broncos’ defensive coordinator the past three seasons under defensive-mastermind Vic Fangio, Donatell watched his boss run a 3-4 scheme that O’Connell thought would be perfect for his new team. In part that’s because Fangio’s scheme often caused problems for the offensive-minded O’Connell, who was the coordinator for the Rams.

What O’Connell must not have missed in the interview process is that the 65-year-old Donatell’s playbook includes the old “bury your head in the sand,” call. Three days after the Vikings’ defense gave up 464 yards in an ugly 34-23 loss to the Detroit Lions, Donatell put the blame for the Vikings’ issues more on execution than scheme.

This came after O’Connell talked a few times this week about the need for improvement and the role coaching plays in making immediate improvements. It wasn’t too hard to read between the lines and figure out O’Connell wanted Donatell to get his act together.

The head coach wasn’t wrong. The Vikings have given up 400-plus yards in a franchise record five consecutive games, they have the NFL’s worst total defense when it comes to yards allowed (403.7 per game), are also last in pass defense (287.2), rank 16th in run defense (116.5) and are 25th in scoring defense (24.1 points per game).

There needs to be an urgency to get this fixed that borders on a crisis situation. Donatell, however, spent Thursday preaching patience with a dose of Pollyanna mixed in. “Eventually we’ll be there,” he said. “We know what we’re doing and how to do it.”

Really? Could have fooled those of us who watched Sunday’s game, or the Dallas game, or any other game where yards came far too easily. And that doesn’t even get to the eventually part. There are four, four!, regular-season games left and the Vikings are sitting at 10-3 and on the verge of clinching the NFC North.

So does that mean Donatell’s defense will start to click in three weeks, or in the playoffs, or next season after an upset loss in the first round that was the result of another defensive meltdown?

Is this the assurance he gave O’Connell, who clearly realizes the need for immediate improvement? The Vikings are having the type of season that can’t be counted on to repeat itself, and Donatell sounds like a guy who is a coordinator for a six-win team that is hoping for better luck next year.

The biggest issue with Donatell’s “it’s the execution and not the scheme” stance is that it puts the onus on the players. The insinuation being that his players aren’t doing a good enough job. The problem with that is the Vikings are 13 games into their season and if the players aren’t executing the scheme than significant adjustments should already have been made.

It’s also not comforting to know that Donatell is running a scheme because O’Connell’s admiration for Fangio caused him to hire the guy who knows the guy who was the brains behind the operation.

The argument from the apologists will be that it’s far too late to overhaul the scheme. That is true, but nobody is asking Donatell for an overhaul. What would be nice is in-season adjustments — something that is common during an NFL season — that would put the Vikings’ best defensive players in a position to succeed.

This defense isn’t bereft of talent. That talent pool includes former Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter, who has seven sacks in 13 games and is being employed more as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 look.

Hunter, who still plays with his hand on the ground in certain looks, was one of the NFL’s best defensive ends before missing most of the past two seasons because of injuries. But the 28-year-old has been healthy this year and still puts out favorable grades, according to Pro Football Focus.

The issue is that Hunter has only two sacks in the past five games, including none in the past two, and far too often goes lengthy stretches without making a noticeable play. “I think he’s getting more comfortable every week,” Donatell said. “It’ll take the whole year. Standing up and playing in our base is a little new to him, still…”

New to him? Thirteen games in? Donatell is saying that Hunter still isn’t comfortable in the scheme and — unless you think Hunter can no longer play — the answer making sure he was put in a role to be comfortable weeks ago.

Donatell’s thoughts on his defense are very close to what Brad Childress said back in 2006, when the team’s offense was struggling late in the season and there were some questions about the West Coast scheme the first-year head coach had employed with the Vikings. “I know it’s a kick-ass offense when it’s executed properly,” Childress said at the time.

What Childress ignored then, and Donatell is ignoring now, is that it’s up to the coach and coordinators to marry their schemes with the personnel they are given. The Vikings had several defensive starters back this season and, thus, it was up to Donatell to make sure that his scheme worked for those players.

Unfortunately, he has failed and preaching patience for a team that has increased expectations seems like another losing call.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Purple Daily Podcast and Mackey & Judd podcast at

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