In 27 years as an NFL assistant, Ed Donatell has worked for six teams — two of them twice. He made six college stops in 11 years, coaching for two schools, Cal State Fullerton and University of Pacific, that don’t even have football programs anymore. He’s won two Super Bowls with the Broncos — and has gone 0-12 with the Washington Huskies.
Still, the Bears’ secondary coach has never been part of anything like what occurred this offseason, when the Bears hired Matt Nagy to take head coach John Fox’s place — and kept the defensive staff, from coordinator Vic Fangio on down, intact.
“Anything’s a possibility in the NFL,” Donatell said. “There’s no shocks. Just surprises.”
This counts as both. Not only did the Bears bring back their defensive coaches — only quality control coach Bill Shuey is new — they decided to keep their starters mostly intact. The Bears’ Week 1 starting lineup could feature nine returning starters, 10 returning players and only one man not on the team last year: first-round pick Roquan Smith at inside linebacker.
“When guys were asking this in prior years, even last year — ‘It’s your third year, are you feeling continuity?’ — my answer was no, because we had a lot of changes from year to year,” Fangio said. “From Year 1 to 2, there was a lot of change. Year 2 to 3, there was change.
“There’s been less change this year. So I do feel more continuity and that’s helpful. But ultimately we still have to go out and play good. But I do believe there is more carryover and foundation than there has been, even last year, and obviously the year before that.”
In a season filled with so many offensive unknowns, the Bears boast a stability that few NFL defenses can match. Just because the unit is running smoothly in June — the team’s three-day mandatory minicamp starts Tuesday — doesn’t guarantee in-season dominance. But the stability provides real value. Rather than teaching players a new scheme, they can focus on making subtle tweaks to a unit that allowed the ninth-fewest yards and the 10th-fewest points in the NFL last year.
“It’s easier to start one side of the ball up than everything,” Donatell said. “It just helps. There’s times when we can look to help our offense a little bit, because they’re in a new stage of developing. The continuity of players coming back, and coaches coming back, that’s definitely a plus.”
Shuey, who coached alongside Nagy as the Eagles’ linebackers coach from 2008-10, laughed that inside jokes among the staff might be flying over his head. But the continuity is such that he can ask any defensive coach a question and get the same answer.
He’s respectful of his role as the newcomer, but acknowledges his perspective can help.
“I come in with a clean lens,” he said.
There’s a benefit to some new blood. Donatell, whose defensive back depth chart could feature all returning players, admitted that sometimes new faces can “warm up the waters a bit.” That won’t happen as often this year, either with players or coaches. But it beats the alternative.
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It wasn’t until Fangio decided to stay that Donatell felt he would return, too. He’s been unemployed for two months before — but also for 20 hours — and neither felt comfortable. Watching friends from the Bears’ offensive staff leave town, and their children leave their friends, wasn’t easy.
“You never get used to it,” he said, “but you’re always prepared to deal with it.”
Amazingly, no Bears defensive coach — and only a few defensive regulars — had to.
“The players have decided to take it up a notch and use their familiarity with each other and the system and the purpose,” Donatell said. “There’s no question about it. It’s real. Our expectation is to improve.”