The Eagles, Matt Cassel and the unpredictability of the NFL

The Eagles, Matt Cassel and the unpredictability of the NFL

Over the course of a season, there are always going to be weeks that remind us we can never be too sure about anything in the NFL. A club that’s won five straight loses to an inferior opponent missing its best player. A defense that’s held nine consecutive teams to 21 points or less gets tagged for 48 by a replacement-level quarterback.

The Philadelphia Eagles are neither immune to that phenomenon nor different from anybody else. This season alone, we’ve seen Nick Foles tie a league record with seven touchdown passes in a game, and we’ve seen him complete a putrid 37 percent of his passes in another, which are the kind of unexplainable highs and lows that still leave people scratching their head.

So in many ways, Sunday was just another day in the NFL, in that all it took was 60 minutes against the 4-9-1 Minnesota Vikings to challenge our carefully-constructed perceptions about this Eagles squad, their defense in particular.

The Vikings. With reigning MVP Adrian Peterson and a litany of key players out with injuries. With Matt Cassel under center.

Cassel has a pedestrian 83.1 passer rating over a nine-year career. Last season with the Kansas City Chiefs, he committed twice as many turnovers (19) than he had games played (9). He hadn’t thrown for 300 yards and three touchdowns in a game since 2010. In fact, Cassel has thrown for over 300 yards in just eight of his 66 career starts; he’s thrown for less than 100 yards eight times—nine including playoffs.

The guy was an undrafted player who wasn’t even the starting quarterback in college. His claim to fame is quarterbacking a New England Patriots team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker to a 10-5 record, then bilking the Chiefs out of a ton of money for four years.

None of that mattered this week though. Cassel was in command from the outset, completing his first nine passes. One of those was a 57-yard touchdown to Greg Jennings, one the most flawless deep balls anybody has completed all season, eluding the pass rush to hit the wide receiver in stride over the top of the defense.

Cassel was unflappable in the face of pressure all afternoon, getting rid of the football quickly or standing tall in the pocket with a defender in his face to deliver a strike when the situation called for it. He was precise, completing 74 percent of his passes. He was prolific, going for 11 yards per attempt en route to 382 total. He was efficient, limiting mistakes to three sacks and one interception off of a tipped pass.

And he did it all without much help from the running game. Matt Asiata managed to punch the ball into the end zone three times from the goal line, but when the dust had settled, the third-string back had averaged just 1.7 yards on 30 carries. According to CSNPhilly.com's Reuben Frank, his 51 yards were the second-lowest total ever for a player with 30 attempts.

Maybe this game was more about Matt Cassel than it was the Eagles’ woeful secondary. Sure, they played poorly, but the same unit held the likes of Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Carson Palmer and Matt Stafford in check over the previous nine games—not exactly a murderer’s row, but all capable of posting a nice line.

Likewise, the same defense that allowed Jennings (11 REC, 163 YDS, 1 TD) to go over the century mark for the first time this season has handled the likes of Vincent Jackson, Dez Bryant, Victor Cruz, Jordy Nelson, Pierre Garcon, Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson this season.

After the game, even Chip Kelly conceded "Cassel was on fire."

For that matter, maybe the Vikings didn’t get enough credit coming into the contest. People looked at the record, the injuries—in addition to AP, the backup running back, the no. 1 tight end, a starting offensive lineman and their top three cornerbacks were all out—and, of course, Cassel, and assumed the Eagles should win in a walk.

Except nobody has won in a walk in Minnesota lately. The Vikings are 3-2-1 over their last six games. They’re legitimately tough.

Call this a trap game if you must, and yes, cornerback and safety will need to be addressed by the front office this coming offseason, for depth at the very least. But perhaps more than anything else, the Eagles’ collapse against the Vikings was simply brought about by an incredible individual performance from an unlikely source. It wouldn’t be the first time, and the way the NFL works, it won’t be the last.

NHL Notes: Islanders fire head coach Jack Capuano

NHL Notes: Islanders fire head coach Jack Capuano

The struggling New York Islanders fired coach Jack Capuano on Tuesday, ending his tenure in the middle of its seventh season.

General manager Garth Snow named assistant GM/coach Doug Weight as Capuano's interim replacement. Snow told reporters Tuesday that the Islanders weren't where they wanted to be in the standings and that everyone's disappointed in their performance his season.

"At the end of the day organizationally I don't think Jack was probably going to be a coach that we were going to bring back," Snow said, adding that the team will begin a full-time coaching search now.

Snow said the halfway point of the season played a role in the timing of firing Capuano a day after beating the Boston Bruins 4-0. The Islanders were 17-17-8 and are in last place in the Eastern Conference with 42 points.

Capuano had been behind the Islanders bench since 2010 and was the fourth-longest tenured coach in the NHL behind Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins, Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks and Dave Tippett of the Arizona Coyotes. Capuano's 482 games and 227 wins rank second in franchise history behind four-time Stanley Cup-winning Hall of Fame coach Al Arbour.

"I don't know that Jack fell short of expectations," Snow said. "When you're a coach in this league sometimes you're a victim of different circumstances."

Snow signed Andrew Ladd to a $38.5 million, seven-year contract in July and the winger has been a disappointment with 12 points in 41 games. The Islanders have also dealt with some injuries and waived veteran goaltender Jaroslav Halak to send him to the minors.

The Islanders under Capuano went 227-194-64 and made three playoff appearances. They have not lived up to playoff expectations this season and new majority owner Jon Ledecky is expected to consider major organizational changes this offseason.

Snow said he takes "100 percent" responsibility for the underachievement but that he doesn't worry about his own job security. He said he has full confidence in Weight, the coaching staff and players to "turn this ship around."

Weight, 45, has been with the Islanders in an executive and coaching capacity since retiring in 2011. Snow said his relationship with all players, including Ladd, was positive and that he called captain John Tavares and others to inform them of the "organizational decision" to fire Capuano.

Snow said assistant coach Bob Corkum would move down from the press box to the bench as part of the restructuring.

Mike Tomlin: Antonio Brown 'foolish, selfish' for locker room live stream

Mike Tomlin: Antonio Brown 'foolish, selfish' for locker room live stream

PITTSBURGH — The father in Mike Tomlin regrets the language he used to describe the New England Patriots during the postgame speech Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown's opted to livestream on social media after a taut playoff victory over Kansas City.

The coach in Tomlin has just as big an issue with one of his team's biggest stars forcing the Steelers to talk about something other than trying to find a way to finally beat Tom Brady when it counts.

A characteristically blunt Tomlin called Brown's decision to broadcast more than 17 minutes of Pittsburgh's giddy locker room to the world -- a move that caught Tomlin using a handful of profanities -- over Kansas City "foolish," "selfish" and "inconsiderate."

"Not only is it a violation of our policy, it's a violation of league policy, both of which he knows," Tomlin said Tuesday.

"So there are consequences to be dealt with from his perspective. We will punish him. We won't punish us."

Tomlin took responsibility for his choice of words, though he was unaware of being filmed as he spoke.

During Tomlin's brief remarks he attached an expletive to the Patriots, who earned a full day's head start on the Steelers by virtue of beating Houston on Saturday night, 24 hours before Pittsburgh outlasted Kansas City 18-16.

"The responsibility associated with being in this thing, just from a role model standpoint, it's something that I personally embrace," Tomlin said.

"It's something that we as a team and organization embrace. So that's why the language, specifically, in terms of the content, is regrettable."

So too is the action of the talented if sporadically diva-like Brown. The former sixth-round pick has evolved from raw project into one of the NFL's best wide receivers.

This season he became only the second player in league history to post four consecutive 100-catch seasons.

His work ethic is universally lauded even as his Q-rating has skyrocketed. Brown can be found on TV pitching everything from soda to credit cards to video games.

The player who -- for reasons he hasn't yet disclosed -- occasionally refers to himself as "Ronald " also has a devoted social media presence, with more than 1.5 million following on Instagram and another 650,000 on Facebook, many of whom got an eyeful and an earful as the Steelers celebrated their first trip to the AFC title game in six years.

While Tomlin has "very little concern" about the content of the video, he has plenty of concern over Brown's lack of judgment.

"You wear on your teammates when they routinely have to answer questions about things that aren't preparation or football-related," Tomlin said.

"It's our desire for him and for everyone to be great teammates, as well as great players. He is a great player. He is a hardworking player. He is respected, largely, in the locker room for those things. But incidences such as this, don't help him in that regard."

The Steelers have grown accustomed to Brown's flights of fancy, whether it's posing for the Mannequin challenge while meeting with reporters, wearing eye-opening (and fine threatening) cleats or his over-the-top touchdown celebrations.

The fallout this time around has been mixed. Long snapper Greg Warren said Monday "AB is AB, he can do what he wants to do."

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger expressed disappointment in Brown during Roethlisberger's weekly appearance on 93.7 The Fan.

Either way, the fact they were forced to respond to questions about Brown before the biggest game of the season only reinforces Tomlin's point, though Tomlin stressed Brown is hardly the only athlete capable of becoming a distraction.

"Those things don't apply exclusively to Antonio," Tomlin said. "It's a global thing in regards to professional sports. I think that's why oftentimes you see great players move around from team to team.

"And I definitely don't want that to be his story. I am sure he doesn't want that to be his story. So, he has to address these things that put him and us in positions from time to time, in settings such as this, where it needs to be addressed."

Tomlin didn't outline the internal discipline Brown faces other than to say it will not affect his availability this weekend.

New England (15-2) pulled away from the Steelers (13-5) in the second half of a 27-16 victory in Pittsburgh on Oct. 23, a game Roethlisberger missed while recovering from surgery on his left knee.

Roethlisberger will be around this time. And so will Brown, who will almost certainly have his phone turned off late Sunday evening regardless of the outcome.

"He has to grow from this," Tomlin said. "He has to."

Notes
LB James Harrison is dealing with shoulder and triceps injuries and could be limited early in the week. ... TE Ladarius Green remains in the concussion protocol more than three weeks after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit against Cincinnati.