- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Much like the NFL's current conflict, the recent rules changes are not what necessarily what they appear.
To Bears place-kicker and player rep Robbie Gould, who has become accustomed in recent months to reading between the lines and searching for hidden motives, the new rule that will move kickoffs up 5 yards to the 35-yard line isn't necessarily a bad thing.
For starters, he thinks it will extend the careers of veteran kickers whose leg strength may have diminished but who can be counted on for their field goal accuracy. It also will not necessarily cut down on significant returns for Devin Hester, Gould said.
"Teams will still say, 'We're good enough in coverage, go ahead and bring it out, try to return it, and if you get to the 16, 17 or 18, it's [OK],' " he said.
Returners will also have the advantage of fielding kicks with less hang time, thus theoretically they will have a head start on the coverage. And it's tough to imagine Hester not taking advantage of any opportunity he sees.
"If the kick goes 4 yards deep with 4.0 hang time, returners are definitely going to run it out," Gould said. "Touchbacks will definitely go up but I don't necessarily think, because the kicks are going to be deeper, that there will stop being returns."
But this whole business about the changes being motivated by the NFL owners' desire to cut down on player injuries?
It's just as transparent as their bottom-line intentions, Gould says, and it's not hard to see his point.
"If one play has such a significant impact on changing the entire history of one of the most exciting plays in football, then why is the National Football League pushing so hard, with approximately 120-plus plays in a game, for two extra games without any health reimbursement and any additional pay?"
Originally, the rule change proposal also eliminated the two-man wedge in kick coverage, which would ostensibly cut down on violent full-speed collisions and head, neck and spine injuries.
"And we still have the two-man wedge," Gould said. "The rule change was supposed to keep players safer and healthier, which is great, but the [essence] of the rule and what the rule ended up becoming, unfortunately got lost in the shuffle."
It's becoming easier and easier to take the players' side in this thing, which is loathsome and dull and yet still worth our attention.
Last week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent out a letter to the players urging the union to get back to the bargaining table, which only further infuriated them.
"When we decertified on March 11, they knew we were no longer a union," Gould said. "We can't go to the bargaining table, there are no such thing as negotiations, no such thing as a union."
While the NFL apparently refuses to believe this and even if it did, has said it doesn't matter if the players are in a union or a trade association as they now call themselves, the rest of us can be excused for simply being more confused.
The motive behind the letter, the players believe, was an attempt to divide them, which they vow will not happen.
Meanwhile, Gould said, the biggest misconception is that every player in the NFL is a millionaire.
"It's funny when people talk about the millionaires versus the billionaires," he said. "I wouldn't dispute we make great money but it's definitely not true that every guy in the NFL is a millionaire. Every single NFL owner is a millionaire though, and some are billionaires."
Now that we have that settled, Gould points to practice-squad players who were making $75,000 and now have to pay for their own COBRA policies.
It's a hard sell for our sympathy, to be sure. Much like it's hard to focus on rules changes in the middle of this mess, even as both sides say they want to get back on the field.
There's one problem with that image as well, said Gould.
"When was the last time a fan clicked on the television to see Virginia McCaskey, Jerry Jones or Dan Snyder?" he said. "No one watches those guys. The product is the players."
He does have a point.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.