- Rich Cimini, ESPN New York Jets reporter
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The unfortunate episode became a national story because Carroll was purposely tripped by Sal Alosi, the Jets' strength and conditioning coach, but Thomas is part of a growing faction that believes Alosi wasn't acting alone.
"They had to be ordered to stand there because they're foot to foot," Thomas said Tuesday on Miami radio station WQAM. "There's four of them, side to side -- five of them, I mean -- on the edge of the coaches' zone. They're only out there to restrict the space of the gunner.
"But there's more to it because I'm telling you, the only thing [Alosi] did wrong was intentionally put that knee out there. If he just stood there, there would never have been a problem, even if the guy got tripped. But there's more to this. He was ordered to stand there. No one is foot to foot on the sideline in the coaches' box."
Actually, it was a six-man line, starting with Alosi and defensive lineman Marcus Dixon (inactive). It's believed the other four also were inactive players. They were in a tight formation, almost like soccer players preparing to defend a direct kick. Their toes were right up against the boundary, with Alosi positioned in the corner of the coaches' box.
Coincidence? When Carroll approached at full speed, not one of them flinched, suggesting it was a show of force that appeared to be orchestrated. Alosi and Jets officials denied that, claiming they don't coach that tactic -- an unsavory technique that is semi-prevalent around the league.
Everybody knows what happened next: Alosi infamously extended his left knee as Carroll ran by on a punt, causing the Miami rookie to fall on his face -- an "irresponsible" act (Alosi's word) that resulted in him being suspended without pay for the rest of the season and fined $25,000 by the Jets.
A close examination of the TV replay shows that Dixon was leaning in with his left shoulder, perhaps preparing for contact as well.
"Something is fishy," said an opposing personnel executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The executive said the Jets have shown a penchant in recent weeks for using sideline personnel as a deterrent to gunners -- players sprinting the sideline in an attempt to get to the returner quickly -- adding that the Jets' sideline is conspicuously clear when their team is doing the punting.
One punt before the Carroll trip, Alosi and four others were lined up in a similar fashion. On that play, Dolphins gunner Reshad Jones came barreling into the sideline area. Because he didn't return immediately to the field, he was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. Even though they benefited from the penalty, the Jets responded as if their turf had been invaded.
"It was kind of curious," said a former longtime NFL special-teams coach. "I mean, they had a bunch of guys lined up. It was unusual to say the least. If somebody ordered that, I'd be [ticked] off if I were Sal."
Former Buffalo Bill Steve Tasker, one of the greatest special-teams players in history, said the Jets' tactic -- if intentional -- didn't bother him at all. He didn't condone Alosi's trip, but he has no problem with a team trying to defend its sideline to prevent a gunner from gaining field position.
"No question, you're not supposed to trip someone, but I think this is an overreaction," he said in a phone interview. "This isn't stealing signs or illegal taping or somebody sabotaging something. It was just a guy, reacting."
Tasker said he made a living out of running out of bounds as a gunner, using the sideline to escape blockers. One time, in a game against the Jets, he was so far out of bounds that he ran through the bench area to break free. Another time, he said he was tripped by former Giants punter Sean Landeta while running on the boundary.
"You think this is the first time [a trip] ever happened? Come on," Tasker said. "Guys were always giving me extra shoves. You don't want to see someone get hurt, but it's not a big deal. Why wouldn't you give a guy a forearm shiver? Everyone on the sideline is part of a team and they all want to win. Shoot, even the doctors are competitive.
"If [the Jets] are coached to do that, so what? Call a penalty on them. If a gunner is going to use the sideline as a weapon, like I did, why wouldn't you want to form a roadblock? There's nothing wrong with that as long as it's within the rules."
Because of Tasker, the league changed the rules, restricting the gunner -- aka the Steve Tasker Rule. On Monday, ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen reported the NFL will send a memo to all 32 clubs as a reminder that they should adhere to league rules that require players, coaches and other personnel to remain the proper distance from the sidelines. But NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an e-mail that the league is not investigating whether the Jets on the sidelines were in a formation to obstruct the gunner.
Jets coach Rex Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum, while not defending Alosi's action, insisted their players aren't coached to crowd the sideline.
"No. 1, I did not instruct anyone," special-teams coach Mike Westhoff said in a statement issued by the team. "No. 2, I was not aware. With all of the people on the sidelines, it would be inconsequential and I would not be involved in any way, shape or form."
Westhoff used to coach the Dolphins' special teams, and spent five seasons with Thomas. The former Pro Bowl linebacker said he couldn't recall anything like that happening in Miami, but said there's no doubt in his mind that Alosi was simply following orders
"Oh, sure, that's the reason the guy didn't get fired," Thomas told Fox Sports Radio in South Florida. "... There was somebody that ordered that for the sideline."
Former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas thinks that the Jets formed a wall on purpose to impede Nolan Carroll.