While the NFL Playoffs have wound on, with thrilling performances by quarterback Aaron Rodgers for Green Bay, a disappointing showing from the reigning world champion New Orleans Saints against the record-wise worst playoff team in NFL history, an uncharacteristic meltdown from Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens on the road against the Ben Roethlisberger-led Pittsburgh Steelers and two road victories by the upstart loudmouth New York Jets and their head coach, Rex Ryan, a story has been developing.
In Week 14 of the NFL regular season, the Miami Dolphins were on the road against those New York Jets. As the Dolphins lined up to cover a punt return, Jets strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi told five of his players to form a “wall” on the sideline.
Alosi then tripped Dolphins’ special teams gunner Nolan Carroll, which triggered an investigation into the incident by FOX Sports’ Jay Glazer, the Jets and other parties. For video of Alosi’s trip, click here.
The investigation into the Jets revealed that Alosi had been ordering his players to line up during similar plays for the entire season. Jets tight end Jeff Cumberland, one of the members of the wall, said, “We’ve been doing that since the beginning of the year, standing right there. [Week 14] was not the first time that we’d been doing that.”
According to the Jets, Sal Alosi acted alone, but quotes from various members of the Jets organization, as well as Rich Cimini’s (ESPN New York) observations, make it hard to believe Gang Green.
NFL insider Jay Glazer continued his own investigation into the now-dubbed Tripgate fiasco and unearthed another sideline hit, this time from the Carolina Panthers’ own starting defensive end, Tyler Brayton, who decked Atlanta Falcons gunner Chris Owens, also in Week 14’s slate of games. Video of Brayton’s shot can be seen here. Brayton wound up receiving a $15,000 fine from the NFL.
Meanwhile, as the investigations progressed, Jets special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff accused the New England Patriots of participating in the same sort of “wall” on appropriate special teams plays.
Much was made of the fact that Westhoff made his accusations in a radio interview with a Chicago station, rather than utilizing the proper channels, but Jay Glazer unveiled video proof in his bit “Glazer’s Edge” during the Online OT Divisional Round weekend, courtesy of FOX Sports.
The video shows New England against, ironically, the Jets, in Week 2 of the regular season, and it shows a Jets gunner running out of bounds, towards an assembly of loosely-aligned Patriots players, the last one of whom stuck out his leg as if to trip the gunner (no major contact occurred). Charley Casserly of CBS also picked up on the story, showing the same video as Glazer and drawing the same conclusions.
It is worth mentioning that this grouping of Patriots players is not as close to the sideline as the Jets players were in Week 14 and that these players are still within the main nucleus of the Patriots sideline, rather than being towards one end, as in the case of Alosi’s players. Moreover, the Patriots had their so-called wall in extremely loose alignment, unlike New York.
However, the discrepancies in the approaches used by Alosi, Brayton and the Patriots notwithstanding, it is abundantly clear that there is something concrete to the “Tripgate” issue. Sports Illustrated’s own Peter King chimed in on Twitter, stating that he thought Glazer’s video “looked damning.”
Nevertheless, in the frenzied rush to probe film and find more instances of walls or out-of-bounds cheap shots, the real issue has not been broached. The real issue is not that teams are setting up walls or that players are taking it into their own hands to deliver cheap shots out of bounds.
Instead, the focus should be on the clear fact that special teams players across the league are pushing the boundaries of the field of play. Players are expected to make a reasonable effort to get back inbounds immediately after going out of bounds, yet in all three videos, the gunners were out of bounds for significant amounts of yardage.
Rewatch the Sal Alosi video. While it is hard to see exactly where Nolan Carroll goes out of bounds, it looks like he goes out somewhere around the 28 or 29-yard line and gets tripped at about the 36-yard line. He was not being blocked and had no reason for staying out of bounds that long—except that to come back in bounds expediently would have required Carroll to adjust his angles and not get downfield as quickly as he would have by continuing to run out of bounds.
Now watch the Brayton video again. Chris Owens is blocked out of bounds at the 26-yard line. The Panthers defender remains engaged with Owens, and the two continue out of bounds until about the 38-and-a-half-yard line, where Tyler Brayton levels Owens. In this particular instance, both the Panthers defender and Owens should have made every effort to return inbounds immediately, rather than spending almost 13 yards out of bounds.
Finally, look at the Patriots video. The Jets gunner goes out of bounds at his own 37-yard line and does not go back inbounds until at least the New England 49.
In two of these three videos, the special teams players have been out of bounds for greater than 10 yards—or greater than 10 percent of the field of play, discounting end zones. The only exception is the Nolan Carroll video—yet if he does not get tripped, he looks to continue out of bounds indefinitely.
If the NFL cracked down on those players ON the field extending the sideline and playing out of bounds instead of coming back inbounds efficiently, as opposed to cracking down on the reactions of teams and players like Tyler Brayton to gameplay taking place on the sidelines, teams and players would not be taking matters into their own hands.
In the Panthers video, the Panthers defender should have disengaged from Owens and made every effort to get back inbounds—as Owens should have. Nolan Carroll may have avoided injury—and Sal Alosi a fine and suspension—if he had returned to the field of play immediately. The Jets gunner against the Patriots spent an uncontested 14 yards out of bounds—for what gain?
When is enough enough? Force players to actually play within the sidelines—to follow the rules. Coaches and players will adjust so that there is no drop-off in their capacity to defend kick returners—though, with 36 combined kickoff and punt return touchdowns in the NFL in the 2010 regular season, perhaps special teams coaches and players would be better advised to stay inbounds anyway.
The NFL should consider investigating the catalyst of the problem, not the reaction to the problem.