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Five things to know about DBs coach Tom Donatell


The Washington Commanders have finalized their coaching staff for the 2024 season, and is going to spend the next few weeks providing an inside look at their backgrounds and what they can add to the team. 

First up is new defensive backs coach Tom Donatell.

1. He has an interactive teaching style.

Donatell has had years to work on his coaching style. He began his NFL career as a defensive quality control coach for the Seattle Seahawks in 2017 and spent the next four years with the franchise before joining the Los Angeles Chargers as an assistant secondary coach. 

He's seen plenty of different approaches to his job in that span, and based on his experience, the best is to be interactive. 

"I definitely believe that when players understand why, it just clicks a lot faster and they can solve problems for you on the field if there's an unscouted look or an unscouted matchup or a favorable matchup," **Donatell said in a Q&A with**

Donatell has been around football for most of his life, so he has a wealth of knowledge to fall back on as an NFL coach. Knowing the game is only part of the job, though; if he can't convey that knowledge to his players, then it doesn't do him much good. He believes that "it doesn't really matter what we know. It's what the players know."

And if one of his players doesn't understand a concept, it's on him to find a way to make it click.

"You start to learn the learner and then adjust your teaching as you go through this."

2. He changed positions several times at Iowa.

Donatell didn't have an easy transition from high school to college sports. He was an all-conference player and captain as a senior, but he didn't receive any scholarship offers for his time at Peachtree Ridge High School. He had to be a walk-on as a quarterback, and even after earning a spot, he had two years before he saw any action on the field.

At some point, he realized that he wasn't going to get much playing time as a quarterback, so he dedicated himself to doing whatever it took to get on the field, even if that meant switching positions a few times.

"Just trying to get on the field quicker. They recruited a bunch of quarterbacks and there was some opportunity on defense so I kind of had the feel that I was going to get switched by how the recruiting went and they just let me start quarterback then 'Let's actually pull the trigger and switch."

Donatell bounced from defensive back to linebacker and back to defensive back in his final three seasons with Iowa, but he was right about the urge to switch positions. Although he only had 10 starts, he was a consistent player and saw action in 33 games. He got most of his snaps in 2012, playing in all 12 games and starting in eight as Iowa's strong safety. He grabbed two interceptions that season to go with a forced fumble and recorded 35 tackles. 

Spending all that time at multiple positions allowed him to jump into the next phase of his football career as well.

"It just kind of got me going into that coaching mode trying to learn everybody's position the different spots I played," Donatell said.

3. He played a role in developing Derwin James and Asante Samuel Jr.

Donatell got his first opportunity to be a position coach in 2021, when he joined Brandon Staley's coaching staff with the Chargers. He was charged with assisting secondary coach Derrick Ansley develop veteran Derwin James, who was coming off a season-ending knee injury, and former second-round pick Asante Samuel Jr.

Donatell was successful with both players. James bounced back from his injury and earned two Pro Bowl appearances, while Samuel emerged as a valuable starter for the Chargers' secondary.

It could be argued that James has looked even better since his knee injury. Since his return in 2021, he has five interceptions, 18 pass breakups, five forced fumbles and eight sacks. On top of his Pro Bowl selections, he earned a Second Team All-Pro nod and received the third-most votes for the Comeback Player of the Year.

Samuel doesn't have any Pro Bowls yet, but he has been one of the most consistent players on the Chargers' roster. He's been one of the team's top 10 tacklers in each of the past two seasons; recorded two interceptions every year he's been with the team; and recorded 35 pass breakups since 2021. The defense has not been that productive -- the highest they've ranked over the last three seasons is 20th – but Samuel has had a coverage grade of at least 75 over the past two years.

Donatell can't take all the credit, but being part of the staff that guided some of the better defensive backs in the league isn't anything to scoff at.

4. He's learned a lot from his dad about coaching in the NFL.

Coaching is a family tradition for Donatell. He's carrying on the legacy of his father, Ed Donatell, who's been at it for 32 years in the NFL and even longer if you include his roles at the collegiate level (he first started as a graduate assistant for Kent State in 1979).

So, Tom Donatell had plenty of time to learn from his father over the years, and those conversations are still going on today.

"When I was younger, we'd talk scheme, football and as we started understanding that stuff, it was more into teaching, styles of teaching, relationships, how to deal with different personalities and be a good teammate as a staff and a player whatever it was," Donatell said. "He was just so big into team and culture, we spent a lot of time talking about that."

Ed Donatell, who last coached for the Minnesota Vikings as their defensive coordinator in 2022, still offers useful tips to his son when the occasion calls for it. A lot of it doesn't even have to do with on-field activities. He'll ask his son how he sets up meetings and whether he's telling his players to use certain techniques. Even questions about how practice went become "very influential."

And of course, there is a friendly rivalry going on between them. They've coached against each other three times, and Ed Donatell has the upper hand for now.

"One of them I was at the Seahawks, and he was at the Bears," Tom Donatell said. "They beat us on Monday night, Coach Staley and Coach Jay Rodgers were on that staff. That was the first one, a pick-6 to seal it against us. And then the two times here we spilt, we lost to them in Denver and then I finally beat him here once that first year we were here, that second game."

5. He gets the chance to work with a young secondary that is eager to improve.

Washington's secondary is in a bit of a transitional period this offseason. Players like Kendall Fuller, Jeremy Reaves and Kamren Curl are all set to hit free agency, and after finishing last season 32nd in passing yards per game, some change is probably needed.

Donatell will play a critical role in that, and there are several young players that he can help guide back in the right direction. 

Emmanuel Forbes Jr. is the most obvious example. While his rookie campaign did not start well, he did even things out around the middle of the season and showed gradual improvement. Forbes was drafted by Washington partially because of his ability to create turnovers and how he uses his length to keep up with receivers. He will need to work with Donatell to show that more consistently.

Benjamin St-Juste is another player who could benefit from Donatell's leadership. The results for the former third-round pick were also mixed, but he did lead the team with 17 pass breakups and got his first interception. 

The results in 2023 weren't what any Commanders player wanted, but if Donatell can reproduce some of the success he had in helping develop James and Samuel, defensive backs like St-Juste and Forbes could still go on to have successful careers.

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