Change is coming to NFL officiating: Why the league needs to act fast

Spears: NFL officials need to be publicly held accountable (0:58)

Marcus Spears explains why NFL officials should be held publicly accountable for calls that affect the results of games. (0:58)

INDIANAPOLIS -- An open secret wafted through the hallways of the NFL scouting combine last week. It had nothing to do with player medical reports or negotiations to complete a new collective bargaining agreement. Instead, it was a general understanding that the league is contemplating a leadership shakeup in its officiating department, one that would affect the game for years to come.

What it will look like, and who will be involved, remain uncertain. The biggest question is whether a cadre of internal advocates can successfully recruit former officiating chief Dean Blandino into a full-time job that would include supervision of the department.

Blandino's 2017 decision to resign and join Fox Sports caught some league officials by surprise, and a return would require mended relationships. But he is widely regarded as one of the few people with enough credibility and public presence to manage the bureaucratic build-out and resource investment that will be necessary to reverse the decline of both on-field officiating and replay review.

It is far from clear whether the sides can or will agree on a reunion. Blandino settled in Southern California after leaving the league's New York headquarters, and has kept busy not only as a broadcaster but also as a consultant to both the Alliance of American Football (AAF) and the XFL. And within the NFL office, there are varying opinions about the priority of restructuring the officiating department relative to CBA talks and looming television and streaming rights negotiations.

But what might seem like insider intrigue is actually one of the most important questions facing the NFL's on-field product. The failure to implement replay review of pass interference in 2019 -- "Not great," committee member Mark Murphy said last week in an understatement -- brought years of officiating deterioration into the spotlight. The corrosion ran so deep that the NFL Referees Association took the unusual but necessary step last fall of demanding additional supervisors to help train and improve its members.

That push prompted the NFL to hire retired referee Walt Anderson into a newly created job, one that carved out part of current officiating chief Al Riveron's responsibilities. The NFL has not yet announced the move, but Anderson's expected title is worth noting. As a senior vice president of training and development, he will sit at the same level on the organizational chart as Riveron, who is senior vice president of officiating.

Riveron made his annual presentations last week to the competition committee on behalf of the officiating department. But league sources continue to suggest that, one way or the other, he will not have final authority over the department when the 2020 season begins. He was not available for comment, nor was executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent. The NFL had no comment.

Per their CBA, on-field officials are in a "dark period" and won't reassemble for training until May 15. But there is more urgency to finalize the leadership structure than you might realize. Later this month, owners are scheduled to gather for their annual meeting in Palm Beach, Florida. High on their agenda will be deciding whether to renew, tweak or eliminate pass interference review. Essential to that decision, it would seem, is the identity of the person in charge of it.

Riveron was responsible for the fundamental breakdown of the rule: a failure to establish a consistent standard for reversing the on-field call. There is no indication that he will be fired, but internal discussions about Blandino as well as Anderson's hiring confirm what has been rumored for months: There will be additional authority alongside him and perhaps above him in 2020.

Some in the league have conceived a structure that would include a chief executive job to oversee a multimillion-dollar expansion of training, recruiting, grading, replay interpretation and perhaps rule-making itself. Anderson, Riveron, vice president of replay Russell Yurk and perhaps others would report through that person.

The list of qualified candidates beyond Blandino, however, is not long. It could include Dawn Aponte, currently the NFL's chief football administrative officer who took on some supervisory duties within the officiating department last year. The default position would be a committee structure that ultimately reports to Aponte and Vincent.

It's important to avoid getting caught up in organizational charts and instead focus on the bigger picture. The NFL is at a crossroads in a fundamental aspect of its product. Years of prioritizing other areas have left its officiating a mess and its rule-making far behind the curve of football innovation. It was five years behind the Canadian Football League on review of pass interference and has watched this spring as the XFL introduced smarter and more effective tweaks to the kickoff and point-after attempts than the NFL has implemented.

We'll find out in the coming weeks and months whether the twin goals of efficient officiating and smart innovation are important to commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners he represents. They could choose to make the kind of fundamental changes that seem necessary. Or they could apply a new band-aid. It's up to them.