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Summer School 2022: Digging into RPOs

RPOs could be a much bigger part of the Giants offense in 2022

NFL: New York Giants Rookie Minicamp John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants are currently building up to their mandatory mini-camp (June 7th-9th). Right now they’re in the OTA (organized team activity) period of their off-season calendar, which largely involves building team chemistry and installing the basics of their offensive and defensive schemes.

Despite the fact that the Giants’ offense is on the field and practicing, we don’t really know what their offense will look like in 2022. It might be broadly useful to look at the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs’ offenses to get an idea for Brian Daboll’s tendencies and the concepts in which Mike Kafka grew up under Andy Reid. But looking at those offenses for specifics is kinda like grabbing Josh Allen’s and Patrick Mahomes’ car keys and expecting them to start Daniel Jones’ car.

They’re three different quarterbacks with different strengths, weaknesses, preferences, supporting casts, and divisional opponents.

But, like I said, looking at those offenses and seeing what might be in Daboll and Kafka’s philosophies could be instructive.

Earlier in the off-season, I speculated that we could see a more modern, quick-hitting offense from the Giants. In particular, I pointed out Run-Pass Option (or RPO) plays as potentially being a much larger piece of the Giants’ offense than in previous years.

So it was interesting (and gratifying) to see this report from The Athletic’s Dan Duggan out of the Giants’ May 19th OTA:

With this in mind, it makes sense to take a closer look at the RPO as an offensive concept.

The Giants haven’t exactly been known for their forward-thinking, progressive attitude regarding football offense. The Giants’ offensive DNA has traditionally been, well... Traditional.

And while that has its advantages, concepts like RPOs are rarely seen in their offensive schemes. Although they have been in the Giants’ offense in year’s past. Last year, in fact, the Giants ran 105 RPO plays per Pro Football Reference — though you can be forgiven for not noticing them. Before we get into why you probably didn’t notice those RPO’s we need to define just what an RPO is.

What are RPOs?

Like I said above, RPO stands for Run-Pass Option. It’s one of those football terms that conveys exactly what it is: A play in which the offense has the option to run or throw the ball.

But saying what the concept is and understanding how it actually works are two different things. We’ll start with a rundown of the “basic” RPO. The RPOs run in the NFL are going to be more sophisticated than the basic RPO, but it’s important to make sure we’re all on the same page before we get into more complicated concepts.

The RPO is an evolution of option offense that seeks to simplify the defense down to one quick binary read for the quarterback.

RPOs start with both a running and passing play called. The offensive line run blocks and the receivers run routes while the quarterback and running back mesh. The QB reads one defender who has both run defense and pass coverage responsibilities while meshing with the running back.

The RPO concept puts that player in a conflict and allows the QB to consistently “be right”.

This a quick and dirty visual using an 11-personnel offense (the most common among NFL teams) against a 4-2-5 defense playing Cover-3 (again, the most common package and alignment).

(Note: This isn’t intended to be a specific play call, and is simply to illustrate the basic concept.)

In this case, the quarterback is reading the slot corner. If he comes down to make a run fit, the quarterback and pull the ball back and throw a pass to the area of the field the defender vacated. If the slot corner turns and runs with the slot receiver, the quarterback simply hands the ball off to the running back.

Ultimately, the only person who knows what’s going to happen on the play is the quarterback. And, at least in theory, he has the ability to always put the ball where the defense isn’t.

So while the Giants may have called 105 RPO plays, they actually only threw on 39 of them, 25 of those passes were thrown by Daniel Jones (2.27 pass attempts on RPOs per game). That’s right in line with his career average, as he threw 28 passes off of RPOs in 2020 and 2019.

By contrast, the Giants ran the ball 66 times off of RPOs. And because every RPO starts out as a running play, looks like a running play, and can end as a running play, it can be difficult to identify them when the quarterback hands the ball off. That’s why it’s so easy to overlook RPOs as a part of the Giants’ offense.

Of course, this also leads to a fair amount of confusion as to what is — and isn’t — an RPO.

RPOs vs. Play-action, package plays, and read-option plays

Another reason why it can be easy to overlook RPOs in an offense (particularly in ones like the Giants have historically run) is that they look like some related play concepts.

We’ll start with the grandfather of modern football misdirection: the play-action pass.

Play-action passes

Bill Walsh was a huge proponent of the play-action (or as he termed it, “run-action”) pass. In his view, play-action was the single easiest, and safest, way to attack the defense vertically.

Play-action passes fake the exchange between the quarterback and running back, creating uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball. Ideally, the fake will be so well executed that the defense has no idea that the QB still has the ball and have no choice but to come up and defend the run. With the defense playing downhill and concentrating on the running back, the quarterback is safe from the pass rush and the receivers will be running toward empty field. By the time the defense catches on, the quarterback should be able to launch a deep pass for a big gain (or possibly a touchdown).

At least on the surface, a pass off an RPO can look a lot like a play-action pass. However, there are a few big differences.

The first is that a play-action pass is always a pass. There is no option to run the ball and there’s only ever one play called. With an RPO, the run is always on the table and not a decoy.

The next difference is that in an RPO, the QB and RB mesh and both have some contact with the ball. The QB is still in control of the ball, but it’s in the RB’s stomach so he can safely run with it if the quarterback completes the hand-off. Ball handling in play-action passes is more akin to a magician’s sleight of hand, and the running back doesn’t really have anything like possession of the ball.

Read-option plays

Moving on to another concept that’s commonly confused with the RPO, the Read-Option.

The Read-Option has come in and out of favor over the years, and really took the NFL by storm about a decade ago. The Miami Dolphins started the modern interest in the Read-Option in 2008 when they used the Wildcat offense to (momentarily) crack the New England Patriots’ decades-long grip on the AFC East crown. The Wildcat offense moved the quarterback to a wide receiver position and featured two running backs in the backfield.

The rest of the league quickly attempted to recreate the Dolphins (short-lived) success with an option offense and there was an instant clamor for running quarterbacks. This was the era in which we saw players like Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffen III, and Ryan Tannehill selected highly — at least in part because of their ability to run the Option offense.

Much like the RPO, the Read-Option simplifies the defense, giving the quarterback the freedom to read a single defender and decide where the ball is going based on that defender’s actions.

Like the RPO, the Read-Option starts with the offensive line run blocking and a QB-RB mesh point. The blocking scheme typically allows a single un-blocked defender on the play side. The quarterback’s job is to read that unblocked defender and make him wrong. If the defender angles toward the running back, the quarterback keeps the football and runs it himself. If the defender attempts to account for the quarterback, the QB hands the ball off and the RB carries the ball.

A “normal” NFL play is typically an 10-on-11 affair and, barring a scramble, a “classic” NFL quarterback isn’t going to be advancing the ball on his own. That gives the defense a numbers advantage. The Read-Option, on the other hand, allows the quarterback to be a weapon in his own right, making it a true 11-on-11 game. The offense can seize a numbers advantage and tilt the odds further in their favor by using the blocking scheme.

By leaving a defender unblocked, the rest of the offensive line is able to create double-teams and effectively climb to the second level and gain a numbers advantage down the field. By isolating a lone defender and forcing him to make a decision between two offensive players, the offense is able to effectively create a numbers advantage on the play-side as well. Of course, doing so also removes the protection given to a passer and opens him up to far more hits than a traditional NFL offense.

Unlike RPO plays, Read-Option plays typically don’t involve a true passing option. They can be tacked on in triple option schemes or with a toss play, but a “basic” Read-Option is a running play. The only real question is which potential runner will be carrying the ball.

Package plays

Finally we come to the concept of the “Package Play.” Package plays are closely related to RPOs in a few aspects, and the two concepts can be easily confused.

Like the RPO, the package play starts with the quarterback and running back meeting at a mesh point while the offensive line run blocks. The quarterback reads an isolated defender and decides whether to complete the exchange with the running back or to pull the ball back and pass.

That much, at least, is just like a basic RPO. Where the RPO and package play differ is that the QB then has a second set of options to work through. That second set can differ based on the offensive personnel, field position, and defensive tendencies. The quarterback’s secondary options could include a passing concept that involves vertical and horizontal routes, a designed QB run, a bubble screen, or almost any other offensive concept.

Package plays naturally give the offense more options than RPO, read-option, or play-action plays. Essentially, contain all of the above. There’s a ton of sophistication in package plays that we can get into, but the primary difference between them and RPOs (at least for our purposes here), is that RPOs are simpler, quicker, and faster.

At least at this level of discussion, the RPO presents the quarterback with a quick (and simple) decision at the first or second level of defense. But like any concept that’s quick and simple, counters aren’t difficult to come up with. If football was as easy as calling two plays, isolating a lone defender, and making a single quick decision, that’s all any offensive coordinator would call.

Next time we’ll be getting into how defenses can account for RPOs and adjustments offensive coordinators make to keep the advantages the RPO gives them.