As we’ve already told you, football can be hard to understand. Playbooks weigh as much as physics textbooks, and when you hear a quarterback barking in the huddle, it can sound like you’ve intercepted an alien transmission. For there to be order in the chaos, the game requires people who have mastered its specifics. Welcome to Masterminds Week, where we’ll spotlight those who have shown expertise in various aspects of the sport—from the big and all-encompassing to the random and hyperspecific.
The life cycle of NFL schemes is predictable. A play gets invented by some innovative coach and chugs along for a few years with some success, but doesn’t really enter the mainstream football conversation until the play wins big games. Then it gets stolen by everyone in football, and after defenses adjust, it dies a gradual death.
No one was talking much about the read option at the NFL level until it started getting teams deep into the 2012 playoffs. Remember when Colin Kaepernick did this?
In 1940, the T formation—where the backfield shape forms a T—became the scheme du jour because the Chicago Bears used it to torch the Redskins in the NFL title game, 73-0. The West Coast offense wasn’t revolutionary until Bill Walsh started winning Super Bowls with it.
Another play is about to have its moment: the run-pass option. The play is simple but can be almost defense-proof. The quarterback has multiple run or pass options on a given play and the decision on which play to run isn’t made until after the ball is snapped. Unlike other plays in the post-snap-decision genre—the option or the zone read come to mind—these plays can include any kind of pass that the play-caller wants to include in the playbook. It’s already ubiquitous at the college level and growing at the NFL level, and it’s hard to find a coach who doesn’t think its influence is about to take off. “It’s already here in the league,” said Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien, “and it’s a trend you’re going to see more of.”
The RPO has the one trait that NFL teams can’t ignore: it works. Pro Football Focus’s Michael Renner calls the play “free yards.” He found the average NFL game featured about five RPOs last year, the first year the company tracked the play. The Bengals—the Bengals—had the most yards of any team on RPOs last year, at an average of 6.2 per play, or more than a half yard higher than the league average for yards per play in general. At the end of last season, quarterback guru Trent Dilfer told me that these plays had about a 90 percent completion rate league-wide when the quarterback opted to pass. The RPO, in part, fueled Dak Prescott’s record-breaking rookie season, and most college systems run some variation of the play. Unlike many college schemes, it translates well to the NFL level.
“I think this play can be great for a lot of teams,” said Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy.
In simplest terms, Packers coach Mike McCarthy told me, the RPO is a rewriting of what’s possible on a play. Green Bay runs the play with Aaron Rodgers, and it basically works like this: Once the quarterback determines what the defense is doing after the snap, he has three options—two passes and a halfback run, or vice versa—all of which are designed to be executed quickly. For most of his time in the league, McCarthy said, plays were either “locked” plays, in which you’d come to the line and run the called play no matter what, or “two-way” plays, where you could audible into a pre-set adjustment. “So what the RPO is, it’s the expansion to the ability to run a three-way play,” he said. That means you can basically do anything—multiple types of runs or passes—on a given play. Crucially, most plays feature changes before the snap, but the RPO adjusts to the defense after the snap, giving the offense maximum flexibility.
Mike Kuchar, who runs football-research company X&O Labs, said the concept is simple: There’s going to be one defender, typically an outside linebacker, on a given play who is going to commit to playing the run or pass post-snap. Once that player makes their decision, you run that play “to the space he vacated.” If he commits to the run, you pass, and if he doesn’t, you run. All decisions are made quickly after the snap. “It’s the modern-day triple-option,” he said, referring to the old-school run option in which a quarterback can keep the ball, or has two options to give it to his fullback or running back.
But the most dangerous option in this play comes in the passing game. The Cowboys had success with a “third-level” RPO last year, which requires the quarterback to read the safety and helps exploit secondaries even more. “I’ve seen so many more RPOs this preseason,” Kuchar said. The play looks like this:
The Bengals gained more yards on RPOs than any team in the NFL last season. When executed correctly, they're free yards pic.twitter.com/DY3m8briQO— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) July 7, 2017
The RPO play is equipped to dominate the modern defense, which has become faster and more athletic in recent years in order to keep up with offenses that consistently trot out three and four receivers. The RPO works because it doesn’t rely on trying to outrun anyone; it relies on going to the most empty part of the field in the most efficient way possible. Various offensive coordinators said the two biggest traits needed to run the play as a quarterback are quick hands (to get the ball out before the defense can recover) and decision-making (to pick the right option). The vast majority of NFL quarterbacks have both. Even if the signal-caller struggles with the big picture of NFL quarterbacking (and there are many of those), the RPO creates easy passes or wide-open runs if he properly reads one or two keys. Done right, it’s the perfect modern play.
Todd Haley, the Steelers’ offensive coordinator, said the team runs it effectively because Ben Roethlisberger is one of the fastest distributors in football, and thus his instincts and ability to quick-throw allow the team to pounce on defenses with it.
“The thing that helps is that it keeps everyone alive on a play,” Haley said. “Any time every skill guy on the field thinks they can get the ball, they’re excited.”
Every NFL coach is fairly confident that nothing is new. If a team ran plays that started with a snap into shotgun and ended with all 11 guys doing a full rendition of Guys and Dolls, other coaches would claim Clark Shaughnessy was running that with the 1949 Rams.
Kuchar thinks the RPO originated at Purdue during the Joe Tiller–Drew Brees era, when the Boilermakers would combine bubble routes with runs and make a read after the snap. It was now-Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, he said, who popularized the play when he was Auburn’s offensive coordinator. “Once he started it, it’s now hard to find someone at the college level who is not doing it.” Kuchar also mentioned Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead as someone designing the best RPOs in the NCAA.
The trickle up to the NFL level has been slower than the explosion in the college game. The Carolina Panthers have used the play with Cam Newton. Their offensive coordinator, Mike Shula, said the play is helpful because, with the lack of blocking tight ends throughout the NFL, you need quicker options to get the ball out as soon as possible—and the RPO is an extremely quick play since it requires the quarterback to get the ball out of his hands in about a second. This is especially important if the defense is bringing significant pressure.
If these plays become widespread, it would change the face of defense. Paul Guenther, the Bengals defensive coordinator, said the key to containing such a play is to disguise coverages. Essentially, offenses in an RPO read which play they’ll go to by checking out easy-to-read seven-man defensive fronts. So disguising the player with the responsibility to commit to a run or a pass early is a good way to mess with an RPO team.
Kuchar said the biggest difference between college and pro RPOs is the protection schemes. Unlike in the NFL, where a quarterback’s going rate is above $20 million, some college RPOs rely on the quarterback rolling to the perimeter of the field and leaving him open for big hits. That won’t fly in the pros. But, Kuchar said, the NFL has evolved to where they’ve taken college RPOs and designed blocks for everyone on the field and kept the quarterback in the pocket instead of a perimeter rollout—it defeats some of the purpose of the college RPOs, which rely on ignoring one player entirely in the blocking scheme to create a numbers advantage elsewhere, but NFL teams will take the tradeoff.
Kuchar also said that teams in college and the pros are getting more aggressive with the routes they are calling in RPOs. After years of focusing on quick, short passing, teams are going downfield, designing RPOs with skinny post routes or other big-play patterns. The ceiling of the RPO still hasn’t been scratched.
Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher made news last fall when he dubbed RPOs “illegal,” suggesting they often led to an ineligible man downfield but that refs rarely called the infraction. There is a subtle but crucial difference between ineligible man downfield in the pros and college. In the NFL, offensive linemen cannot be more than 1 yard (as opposed to 3 in college) downfield at the time the ball is thrown. This complicates the professional RPO, since offensive linemen, cognizant of the R in the RPO, explode forward to block for a run at the beginning of the play. Even if the quarterback opts to throw, the pass will oftentimes be so short and quick that run blocking principles will be in effect.
This is going to create a massive gray area once the play reaches its peak.
“It’s hard to see [linemen downfield] as an official,” O’Brien said. “There’s a lot of examples where that’s not called.”
Referee Jerome Boger told me that the gray area was a topic of interest at the league’s refereeing meetings before the season. He said referees are supposed to be watching the play closely this season and that calling ineligible receiver downfield is simply a matter of watching the timing of the play with greater scrutiny.
So, as long as the referees allow some envelope pushing, the RPO is going to be The Play of 2017. When there’s a play that is dubbed “free yards” by smart people, you can expect it to spread. So, how hot can this play get?
Bengals backup A.J. McCarron thinks it’ll retain its popularity just because it ensures teams won’t have to rely on “checkdowns,” which are essentially audibles into short passes that do little more than gain a handful of yards. Designing a play with a big pass option that can be utilized post-snap will always be appealing. “Every team can pass out of the gun,” McCarron said, “but this allows you to run out of the gun. And if you wanted to, you could run this under center, too.”
Bengals quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor also said the RPO is an efficient way to keep possession since all of the plays are designed to limit risk and thus turnovers.
So, given all the advantages they seem to provide, will the RPOs have a multiseason run before flaming out, as the read option did? Or will it become like the shotgun pass or crossing pattern from a slot receiver—something that endures for long enough that it’s hard to remember a time it wasn’t part of the game?
“And then in four years,” Lazor said, talking about the life cycle of the read option and RPO, “someone will be asking me about the new thing, and asking if it will be the new RPO.”