What is an RPO? The offensive concept behind the latest buzzword around the Patriots
November 14th, 2022
As the Patriots head out of the bye week, there’s a lot of talk externally about what the team can do to jumpstart the offense. Through nine games the team ranked 22nd averaging 5.3 yards per play, with a league-high 17 giveaways.
There’s been a lot of blame thrown around for the shortcomings of the offense (some of which we covered in our mid-season report card here), and no shortage of suggestions about how to fix it. Within all of that, there’s one term that’s getting brought up quite a bit – Run-Pass Options, or RPOs.
The RPO concept initiated in the college game (as many modern offensive innovations do), but as become more and more prevalent in the NFL in recent years. The rate at which RPOs are being called has increased every year since 2016 according to PFF, accounting for about 10 percent of all offensive play calls league-wide during the 2021 season. That number continues to rise this season.
‘RPO’ is a popular buzzword around the Patriots right now, but what exactly does it mean? Let’s take a deep dive into a concept that has begun to take over the NFL in recent years, and whether or not it can be a fix in New England.
It might be easier to start off by explaining RPOs are not. RPOs are at times confused with concepts including play-action, traditional options, and read options. While there can be elements of those plays within RPOs, they are not RPOs are their own.
We’ll start with play-action. Play-action plays are play designs where the quarterback initially acts as though he’s handing the ball to the running back, before pulling it away to throw the ball. These plays are designed passes all the way through, with no option or read element between the quarterback and running back.
A traditional option play – sometimes called a ‘speed option,’ ‘power option,’ ‘double’ or ‘triple’ option, or just an ‘option’ – is one of the oldest concepts in modern football. These kinds of plays are run mostly by select teams at the college level such as the service academies, but do rarely appear in the NFL.
These option plays are all about numbers. On any given play, an offense is at a numbers disadvantage with 10 blockers to block 11 would-be tacklers (with the ball-carrier being the 11th offensive player). Those numbers can then be manipulated based on where players are lined up on the field (ex. a boundary corner on the opposite side of a running play won’t be able to make an initial impact). Options take that disadvantage and flip it in favor with the offense.
They’re designed to isolate a single defender (usually a defensive end or outside linebacker) unblocked by design on a ball carrier and another potential ball carrier (usually a quarterback and running back), with the ball carrier having the option to either attack the defender or pitch the ball. It especially becomes a game between the ball carrier and the defender – the defender eventually has to commit to one player, with the ball carrier making the read to either pitch the ball if the defender commits to him, or keep the ball if the defender commits the other way. More elements can be built in on top of that basic concept, including an option for an initial handoff making the play a triple option.
Read options or ‘zone reads’ are a version of traditional options adopted for the modern shotgun-heavy game. Anybody who has ever played NCAA Football 14 probably remembers this concept. The play initially looks like a regular shotgun handoff. However, at the snap of the ball the quarterback reads an edge defender like he would on a double or triple option.
Depending on what the read defender does, the quarterback then either completes the handoff, or pulls the ball back and keeps it himself for a run. Again, it becomes a game-within-the-game between the QB and read defender, and sometimes the players will get locked in a game of chicken for even one to two seconds before somebody makes a decision. Still, it is a running play the whole way, and the line blocks as such.
Read options can be built into triple options – as is the case in the clip above with Coastal Carolina – but are often ran on their own. Different run concepts can be built into read options, from dives to sweeps. Which player has the interior run assignment and which player is running off the edge can also vary depending on the call. Read options began in college but reached the NFL in the early 2010s. Some successful read option quarterbacks at the pro level include Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, and Carson Wentz, while Cam Newton may have been the best to run the concept in the NFL to this point.
Read-option keeper for a TD, with motion included to add conflict for the defense. The QB reads No. 91 on the defense.
Great drive to start the day. A little trickery from @dak to finish it off! 🪄
Ok, back to RPOs. Like a read option, an RPO is a concept, not a single play. There are many variations of what an RPO can be, which we’ll get into in a minute. But RPOs, as a category, are plays designed similar to read options but with a passing element involved. At the same time, they can also be run from under center – but that raises the level of difficulty.
In the most basic sense, an RPO is a play where the quarterback, like traditional and read options, again reads a specific defender after the snap. This time though, that defender is usually an outside linebacker or slot cornerback. Unlike read options that are run plays across the board, RPOs have a quick passing concept built in. However, they rarely involve the quarterback taking off on his own, a common misconception and confusion related to read options.
If the read defender commits to the run has another assignment that results in him vacating space in coverage, and the route takes the receiver through that space, the quarterback will pull the ball and throw. If the defender stays back in coverage, then the quarterback goes with the handoff. In more complex offenses that feature running quarterbacks, teams may use that to their advantage and build in three options of a keeper, handoff, or pass.
QB throws a quick slant, with defenders crashing down to play the run
One of the good parts about Zach Wilson's game: the ability to change arm angles and make good throws with just hip rotation. Nice play on this RPO pic.twitter.com/t44e4ztUVS
Elements of both play action and read options can be found within RPOs, which may lead to confusion. The act of the quarterback pulling the ball away from the back may look like play action, but unlike play action he may actually have the option to hand it off on an RPO call. An RPO may also look like a read-option because the quarterback’s head is up reading an outside defender. The play may even contain a read-option element in three-option RPOs, but it’s two separate concepts merging together, not the same thing.
It can be tough to distinguish what is or what isn’t an RPO at first watching a play live. It might take a replay or two to figure it out. When trying to do so, there are two key things to look for. If a run play looks like an RPO, watch the receivers. If one or two of them go into a route while everybody else is blocking, and the QB glances to that side of the field before a handoff, that could be a tip it’s an RPO.
There are a number of routes that can be paired with RPOs. Some of the most common are bubble screens (the Patriots’ favorite), slants, hitches, and in some more advanced RPOs fades, posts, and wheels. The routes usually have to be quick developing, because of the second thing to watch when trying to identify RPOs – the offensive line.
HOUSTON, TEXAS – OCTOBER 10: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots hands the ball to Rhamondre Stevenson #38 during the second half at NRG Stadium on October 10, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
If a play is a pass, the key to determining if it was an RPO is to watch the offensive line. On RPO calls, the offensive line always blocks assuming a running play. If offensive linemen are blocking up field and getting into the second level instead of getting into pass sets, that’s a strong sign there was a run option on the play.
That’s also where these plays get complicated. At this point you may be thinking “wow, the idea behind an RPO is flawless, why don’t teams run them more often?” Well, they’re much easier said than done.
One of the biggest challenges is all of the decisions laid out above have to be made in a fraction of a second. There’s really no opportunity for the quarterback to take his time like on a read option. A main reason is the blocking schemes. Linemen are starting to get up the field at the snap of the ball, so if the quarterback hesitates before throwing there’s a good chance the play will result in an ineligible man downfield penalty. In fact, the rise in RPOs coincides with the rise in that exact penalty being called more often in the league over the last few years.
QB holds the ball too long on RPO, leading to offensive linemen getting upfield and drawing a penalty
Can we talk about how great this throw was? Side arm needle threading. Shame it didn’t count. Ineligible man downfield rules need to change. pic.twitter.com/CGaAZngUHs
Another challenge is that everybody really has to be on the same page for an RPO to work. It’s not uncommon to see fumbled exchanges between the quarterback and running back on these sorts of plays.
And again, this all has to be decided within a second or two of the ball being snapped. The room for error is slim, and a wrong decision on an RPO, especially on a throw, can lead to a turnover easily. Quick-hitting, outside routes are some of the most susceptible to pick-sixes.
Experience is crucial when it comes to RPOs, both for the individuals running the plays and the players having experience running them together. And that’s where we can bring the Patriots back in.
When it comes to Mac Jones, experience with RPOs shouldn’t be an issue. For one thing, Alabama’s offense is full of them. Not only did he run RPOs a lot in college, he was very successful with them as well.
During Jones’ season as the Crimson Tide’s starter, over 50 percent of their run calls included a pass read. There’s a great breakdown of what kinds of RPOs they ran here. Asked about RPOs earlier this year, Jones told reporters “I like RPOs. They’re cool.”
“I think it puts stress on the defense. I definitely learned in college just watching Coach [Nick] Saban sometimes explode at practice. Just knowing he’s trying to tell somebody to do something but his guy’s running a route, but then it’s also a run. Is it a pass? So there’s a lot of cool gray area there from an offensive perspective,” he continued. “It’s kind of an interesting play.”
It also helps to have running backs who are accustomed to RPO looks, which the Patriots’ top two backs are. Damien Harris also played at Alabama, so he’s of course familiar. Playing under Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma, Rhamondre Stevenson saw his share of RPO calls as well.
As for the receivers – DeVante Parker saw plenty of RPOs during his time in Miami. Last year, the Dolphins threw more RPO passes than any team in the NFL. He and Tyquan Thornton are both strong slant routes runners, one of the key routes in RPO packages.
As for the Patriots’ returning receivers, Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, and Nelson Agholor all have had success with bubble screens, another common RPO route. As far as the Patriots go, it appears to be their favorite.
Jakobi Meyers picks up a first down on a bubble screen RPO (second tweet)
Pin-pull/bubble screen RPO. Single-high creates three-on-two for the screen. Meyers gains nine yards. Love this one because pin-pull flowing away from the screen makes it tough on the defense to recover to the screen side. #Patriotspic.twitter.com/ml5ylq80Pt
Returning quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, they all saw plenty of RPOs with the Patriots last year as well. In Jones’ rookie year under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the Patriots called 52 RPOs per Pro Football Reference. Those 52 plays went for a total of 499 yards, or 9.6 yards per play. Of those 52, Jones threw the ball 32 times for 324 yards.
While the Patriots didn’t major in RPO calls – their 52 ranked 24th in the league through Week 9 – they were successful when they did. Their 9.6 yards per play on RPOs led the NFL by almost two full yards per play, and was well above the league average of 6.03 yards per play. It appeared to be an emerging part of their offense that could help elevate their young quarterback. That yards per play average would likely come down some if they started running them more, but it was clearly a play the quarterback and offense as a whole was comfortable with.
However, the number of RPOs in the Patriots offense has dropped off significantly during the first half of the season. The team has only called 15 through nine games, with eight of those occurring with Mac Jones in his six games. Their yards per play on RPOs is down as well, to 5.9 yards per RPO, just over a full yard less than the league average. So, what changed?
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – AUGUST 26: (R-L) Head coach Josh McDaniels of the Las Vegas Raiders and quarterback Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots interact after their preseason game at Allegiant Stadium on August 26, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images)
The first instinct may be to say McDaniels’ departure. However, the numbers don’t back up his absence being the issues. The Raiders’ RPO package is struggling. They’d only called one more RPO than the Patriots heading into last week, and are averaging 3.8 yards per play on those calls.
In reality, the bigger issue – in terms of the yards per play – may be the kinds of RPOs the Patriots are calling. They’ve gone with bubble screens almost exclusively, instead of throwing the ball downfield by mixing in slants and fades. This may not be a major surprise, as Joe Judge’s 2021 Giants were last in the league having averaged 3.9 yards per play on their 105 RPO calls.
And again, RPOs are really rhythm plays. The more often they’re run, the easier they get. Calling them less actually makes them slightly harder to execute. It’s tougher to pinpoint why the overall number of calls is down though.
Whatever the issue or issues are, the Patriots should look to make RPOs a bigger part of their offense for the second half of the season, and diversify the kinds of RPOs they’re running. On top of everything stated above, there’s another bonus as well.
RPOs are the one concept in football that comes closest to taking the offensive line out of the equation. Because it’s a quick-release pass play, pass blocking plays much less of a factor. As for the run element of it, the quarterback only hands the ball off if he sees the running back will have a lane. As the Patriots look to work through their offensive line struggles, RPOs would certainly help take some of the pressure off that group.
O.K., time to take a deep breath. That was a lot. But now, you (hopefully) know what an RPO is, why they’re so popular, and how they could be a spark for the Patriots’ offense. So keep an eye out for them down the stretch of the regular season, and we’ll see if they provide the boost the team needs.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarthor via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.