As the Super Bowl unfolded, Babers witnessed a product of his past and, maybe, a preview of professional football’s future. The Eagles tortured the New England Patriots with run-pass option plays, or RPOs. Quarterback Nick Foles either would hand off or pass based not on a play-call or even a pre-snap read but on how a Patriots defender moved during a play. It was a simple attack, yet seemingly unsolvable.
While watching the Eagles run up 41 points and 538 yards, Babers recalled his previous decade of coaching. The RPO was becoming a craze in the NFL, but Babers, now the head coach at Syracuse, had first seen and used it more than a decade ago as an assistant at Baylor.
“The first thing is like, ‘They’re running our plays!’ ” Babers said this month in a phone conversation, bursting into laughter. “The really cool thing about football is, once you put it on tape, it’s everybody’s play.”
The final game of last NFL season provided a glimpse of what the upcoming season may look like. The RPO is a simple concept that creates complex problems for the defense. As offensive linemen block for a running play, the quarterback reads the reaction of a specified defender — usually a linebacker — to determine whether he will hand off or throw a quick pass. A handful of teams relied on the play as something more than a gimmick last year, and after the Super Bowl, imitators of the Eagles — themselves imitators of earlier proponents — could be everywhere.
“It’s definitely growing,” said Baltimore Ravens Coach John Harbaugh, who plans to run more RPOs this season. “It’s probably because it’s good football. . . . These are high school plays, really — high school plays that went into college and now are in the NFL. I don’t think you’ll see a team come out here and be completely an RPO-type team, because this league can pretty much shut down anything that’s just one thing. But it’s going to be a big part of people’s offenses, for sure.”
The Super Bowl marked not an unveiling of the RPO but a culmination of its upward trajectory. In the past decade, offensive innovation has trickled up. The NFL borrows plays from college coaches, many of whom started out as high school coaches. When the Eagles thrashed the Patriots, they won the Super Bowl, and the RPO achieved its own kind of victory, having infiltrated the sport at its highest level.
“I think it’ll be here for a while,” Los Angeles Rams cornerback Aqib Talib said. “Philly won a championship doing it, and they averaged a bunch of points doing it. It’s trendy in the league right now.”
As the prevalence of RPO plays in the NFL is poised to soar, it’s worth exploring the path they took to get here, a task nearly as difficult as stopping them. Innovation in football is not linear. It’s a messy blending of ideas and concepts, often occurring along parallel tracks.
Nobody can agree on one starting point from which RPOs emerged. As Mississippi State Coach Joe Moorhead said, “It’s like looking for the Holy Grail.”
Birth and growth
Football coaches are possessed of the notion that nothing is new. Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg called the sport “cyclical” and told a story about seeing Missouri Coach Don Faurot reviewing 16 millimeter film of his teams running five-wide shotgun against Oklahoma in the 1950s. Harbaugh cited the triple option as the inspiration for RPOs.
“Anything that’s happening in the present in offensive football can be traced to the past,” Moorhead said.
In modern football, the earliest RPO probably occurred on Texas high school fields. Chad Morris, who coached in the state during the 1990s, was desperate to find an edge for his offense, which ran the triple option, and had a lightbulb moment: “What if we read the [cornerback] instead of the [defensive] end?” His quarterback wouldn’t pitch the ball or keep it based on the defense. He would keep it or pass it deep.
Morris, now the head coach at Arkansas, would run more standard RPO plays while the offensive coordinator at Clemson, where he recruited Deshaun Watson, now the starting quarterback for the Houston Texans. While he wasn’t the first Texas high school coach to run an early version of the RPO, he helped the play spread.
“At the time, no one really knew that was an RPO,” Morris said. “That’s where it all started. Hey, we were doing some RPOs way back. We just didn’t know it.”
Mike Kuchar, the senior research manager at XandOLabs.com, traces the RPO concept, in modern college football, to Coach Joe Tiller’s pyrotechnic teams at Purdue. Tiller ran packaged plays that allowed the quarterback — starting with Drew Brees in the late 1990s — to make a pre-snap decision based on where an outside linebacker lined up. If he started inside a slot receiver, Brees would run a bubble screen, trapping the linebacker inside. If the linebacker lined up outside the slot, Brees would run a draw play, handing off to a running back and making it easy to block the linebacker.
The concept would not be considered an RPO, because the quarterback’s decision happened before the snap. It is more of a proto-RPO, outlining the concepts coaches would use to create an even more sinister predicament for defenders.
Kuchar also noted Dana Holgorsen, currently West Virginia’s head coach, innovated within the Air Raid offense with what has come to be known as the stick-draw concept: A quarterback would either hand off on a draw or throw a hitch route — the “stick” — to an inside receiver running to the space a linebacker vacated.
“It just evolves,” Kuchar said. “Coaches take concepts from each other and add to them.”
At Baylor, Babers worked for Art Briles, who was forced to resign in disgrace after a sexual assault scandal at the program but whose on-field influence has seeped into every corner of the sport. Briles started running RPO-style plays as the coach at Stephenville (Tex.) High in the 1990s, when he transitioned from a triple-option wishbone offense to the spread but kept several option-based principles intact.
Briles rose quickly and turned Baylor into an offensive juggernaut. Babers said Baylor would run a specific RPO only inside the 25-yard line. The quarterback would read the safety, who in the red zone didn’t have enough time or space to disguise his intentions. They didn’t think it would work in the open field.
By 2012, Babers had taken over Eastern Illinois and turned it into a Football Championship Subdivision power, quarterbacked by Jimmy Garoppolo, now the starter for the San Francisco 49ers. That season, Tennessee Tech shut down Eastern Illinois using essentially a goal line defense. Babers told his offensive coordinator to try the RPO, even though the offense was in the middle of the field.
“And him having Baylor roots said, ‘No, we can’t call that play. That’s a red-zone play,’ ” Babers said. “We ran another play, and it didn’t work. I said, ‘We can call it.’ He said, ‘No, it’s a red-zone play, and we’re in the middle of the field.’ I said, ‘They’re playing a red-zone defense. Why does it matter where in the hell you’re at? Just call the damn play.’ And the play went for a touchdown. Then after that, the rest was history.”
At that point, Babers said, he started to dedicate a large chunk of his offense to RPOs that placed the safety in conflict, and others took note. Moorhead, then the coach at Fordham, always searched for new ideas. Moorhead’s staff broke down film of Babers’s Eastern Illinois offense.
The coaches argued whether Garoppolo was executing a typical play-action pass or reading the safety. After repeated viewings, they realized it was an RPO, and it became a massive part of their playbook. In effect, they had reverse-engineered an offense through watching tape. When Moorhead left Fordham to become Penn State’s offensive coordinator, he brought the play to a broader audience.
But by then, even if the casual football public hadn’t realized, somebody already had taken it into the NFL.
“We started this, all right?” Robert Griffin III said this month, grinning under a balcony outside the Ravens’ practice facility.
As a rookie in the NFL, Griffin said, Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan and his son, Kyle, Washington’s offensive coordinator who is now the 49ers’ coach, reviewed film of Griffin quarterbacking for Briles at Baylor. They discussed the system with Griffin, particularly the RPOs Griffin used, and merged the concepts into their West Coast offense, “which was brilliant,” Griffin said.
Los Angeles Rams Coach Sean McVay, then Washington’s tight ends coach, called those discussions his first exposure to RPOs.
“We brought the RPO system to the NFL,” Griffin said. “It’s not something that just came out of nowhere in the NFL.” He described the plays the Eagles ran in the Super Bowl as being just like the ones he executed at Baylor.
It is expected that the play will become more popular this season. Even the Ravens, who ran fewer RPOs than any team in football last year, plan to make it part of their attack.
“I don’t think it’s a fad,” Griffin said. “It gives the offense the advantage and allows you to attack the defense as opposed to the defense constantly attacking you. I’m not a skeptic of the college-style plays. It’s going to be around forever.”
Not everybody is convinced. NFL defenses have contempt for trendy offensive schemes, which they uniformly dismiss as fads certain to be solved. NFL teams have been far more willing to steal innovation from the college game, and many concepts have become ingrained. Others, such as the wildcat, were shut down quickly.
“I think in five years, it’s going to be out,” Ravens safety Eric Weddle said of RPOs. “I’m not really worried about it. It’ll be another phase where defenses see it, get used to it, and then there’s a revolving door. It’s just like the wildcat, the quarterback running game, yada yada yada.”
Added Baltimore defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale: “Obviously, defenses will catch up to it. I hope we’re there to catch up to it already.”
The NFL offseason lends credence to Griffin’s notion that teams are looking to run more RPOs. The Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs ran them more often than any other teams last season, employing 181 and 168, respectively, per Pro Football Focus. Philadelphia Coach Doug Pederson worked under Kansas City Coach Andy Reid. New Indianapolis Colts Coach Frank Reich served under Pederson last year, and first-year Chicago Bears Coach Matt Nagy was Reid’s offensive coordinator.
The Eagles’ success also showed the versatility of the play. For years, teams have shied away from RPOs against man-to-man defenses, Kuchar said, but Pederson found a way to exploit that coverage by using tight end Zach Ertz against linebackers too slow to cover him. And it helps solve the fundamental challenge for offensive coaches in designing running plays — creating an alignment with more blockers than defenders — by forcing a linebacker to protect against the pass on a run play. Teams averaged 4.6 yards per carry on RPO runs last season, compared with 3.8 yards on non-RPOs.
“We actually had several NFL teams come and talk to us about where this next wave of college football is going now,” said Morris, the Arkansas coach. “Especially defensive coordinators. They want to find out what’s next.”
The RPO may not become the dominant form of NFL offense, but it has taken over the college game, infiltrated the pros and is only spreading. The RPO is no longer an NFL novelty. It is everybody’s play.
In a run-pass option play,
the QB will read a defender before choosing to hand off . . .
. . . or fake the handoff to the running back and drop back to throw a quick pass.
Yards per RPO running play, compared to 3.84 yards on non-RPOs. In 2017, 28.5% of RPO plays were runs.
Yards per RPO passing play, compared to 5.59 yards
on non-RPOs. In 2017, 71.5% of RPO plays were passes.
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