Various forms of Run Pass Options or RPOs have been the subject of NFL headlines since Doug Pederson and the Philadelphia Eagles rode them all the way to a Super Bowl victory last year. Though Pederson’s offense was mocked by NFL players as “High School Offense,” no one could stop them. Not even when starter Carson Wentz went down with an injury and Nick Foles stepped in. Not even defensive genius Bill Bellichick on the biggest stage of them all.
Though they are derided by some as “gimmicky,” or a “phase,” I believe that RPOs are here to stay. Unlike the Wildcat (which was a fad and relied on an unprepared defense), defenses can’t tell what is coming based on the formation. And unlike the brief stint of QB runs and read option we’ve seen in the NFL, RPOs typically don’t put the franchise player in harm’s way. This is fundamentally sound football, and it works. And RPOs have a history of success in the NFL dating back to at least the Brett Favre New York Jets days, why would they suddenly stop working now?
RPOs give the quarterback literally that; an option between handing the ball off on a run play, or passing the ball to an eligible receiver. The offensive line blocks for the running play immediately on the snap, and the back assumes he is getting the ball. Any receivers involved in the pass option run their routes like they normally would on a called pass. The quarterback chooses which play is best for the offense (usually by making a simple read of one or two defenders), and delivers the ball. It’s practice-efficient football, because neither the line nor the receivers are doing something new.
A taste of their own medicine
Against Pederson’s Eagles OC Todd Haley wasted no time introducing some RPOs of his own, calling for one on the very first play of the game:
From a 2x2 Pistol formation, the Browns sent Jarvis Landry in motion to ID the coverage. As he saw the CB follow Landry, QB Tyrod Taylor could assume man to man coverage.
The Eagles are in a single high safety look, which means they have an extra safety in the box to stop the run. The weakness of this defensive look is that with only one safety deep the Eagles’ corners are either going to play off coverage or they are going to really risk getting beat deep.
Before the snap you can see the CB playing off of Landry, which is when Taylor makes his read. The ball is going outside.
On the snap the line blocks for the outside zone running play to the left, as RB Carlos Hyde anticipates getting the handoff. Having made his read, Taylor delivers the ball to Landry, who runs a 1-step “stay” route.
The ball gets to Landry for only a 1 yard gain, but with the corner closing hard and a shifty receiver like Landry in space, good things are bound to happen for the Browns.
Landry makes a nice move and picks up 11 on the play.
Getting the ball to playmakers in space like this is something any good offense does. With this type of RPO, you can ensure your playmakers are put in favorable positions when they get touches.
Picking up where he left off in college
Later in the game, Baker Mayfield got in on the action. Facing a 2nd and 10, Mayfield could be seen making a signal to WR Jeff Janis. He likely saw that the Eagles had stacked the box with 10(!) defenders, making it almost impossible to run the ball.
Sure enough, on the snap, the line and RB Nick Chubb are running inside zone to the right, as Mayfield throws a quick slant to Janis.
This is a safe and relatively easy way to pick up 5 yards on 2nd and 10. Throwing this type of quick pass is probably a lot more reliable than running into a 10 man box, and if Janis is able to break a tackle he could legitimately take this in for a touchdown.
Not to be left out, QB Drew Stanton also threw to the pass option off of this look in the 4th quarter. Facing an 8 man front, Stanton knew that the Browns’ 7 available blockers likely would not get the job done in the running game. After sending WR Da’Mari Scott in motion across the formation, Stanton saw the same off coverage on WR Jeff Janis that the Browns had been seeing all night.
On the snap RB Nick Chubb and the offensive line are still running the inside zone play, but Stanton fires the ball to Janis.
Unfortunately on this play, Janis drops the ball despite it hitting him right in the gut.
Running the ball is all about arithmetic. If you don’t have enough people to block all of the defenders on a given play, running the ball typically won’t work. When called intelligently and executed well, RPOs ensure that offenses have favorable numbers in the box for their runs. If they don’t, the quarterback simply goes elsewhere with the ball. And “going where the defense is not” is what good offense is all about.
I counted no less than 7 of these RPOs in the Browns’ Week 3 preseason game. Not all of them worked as intended, but between Todd Haley’s use of tempo and these RPOs it will be very interesting to see how the offense coalesces in the regular season. Though this isn’t saying much, the 2018 Browns’ offense might be the most advanced and intelligent the franchise has seen since the return.