“It’s really, really tough to defend… it’s a whole new aspect of football that when I was coming up in the NFL you just didn’t have to worry about.” – Jim Mora
RPO stands for run-pass option.
It’s a term you should expect to hear often this season. Why? Because not only did the Philadelphia Eagles use it to help win a Super Bowl last season, it’s a new component of the Minnesota Vikings offense. It’s also the latest trend of NFL offenses.
Shortly after the hiring of offensive coordinator John DeFilippo this offseason, former NFL and UCLA head coach Jim Mora described the concept in detail to Mike Wobschall of Vikings.com. The full interview can be viewed on the team’s official YouTube channel.
Mora on the RPO
“It’s really a couple different things. First of all, you’re giving the quarterback the opportunity at the line of scrimmage to sometimes predetermine whether or not he’s going to hand it off or make a throw.
With the initial action where you’re taking the snap and faking-and-riding the back, you’re trying to put a linebacker in conflict; a linebacker that maybe has a gap he’s got to fill but a zone that he’s also got to cover on the pass.
If you get him to stay back in his zone, you hand it off and you hit the run. If he attacks, you can pop [the football] in behind him.
There’s also the element of the quarterback reading either the tackle or the end to decide if he wants to give it [to the running back] or not. So there’s the RPO of hand-it-off or throw it, or I’m going to hand-it-off as a quarterback or keep it.
In the NFL, the quarterback is such a valuable commodity that the aspect of where ‘I’m going to hand-it-off or keep it’ maybe is a little less prominent than ‘I’m going to hand it off or throw it.’
Mora on Kirk Cousins and the RPO
“I think that Minnesota now has a quarterback that can execute that concept — those two concepts, [to] perfection. Because you’ve got a guy that is incredibly bright, is a tremendous decision-maker, has courage, and has the intelligence that — if he has the ball in his hands… he’s going to protect himself. He’s going to get down.
And the way he sees the game. His ability to digest information quickly and make great decisions… I just think it was a really great move and I think we’re going to see it really pay off next year.”
More RPO basics
Not to be confused with a read-option (run play) or play-action (pass), an RPO provides the quarterback with multiple options. He can either hand the ball off, throw the ball, or keep it. Mora did a great job of explaining the quarterbacks’ responsibilities. However, the entire offense must work together in order to properly execute an RPO, so what about the other positions?
A proper RPO calls for offensive linemen to run block. That means driving the defender forward and away from the backfield. The challenging part of this concept is having the quarterback throw the ball before the linemen get more than one yard downfield. If he does not, the offense will be penalized for having an “ineligible receiver downfield.” To mitigate this issue, many RPO play calls involve blocking schemes that move the linemen horizontally towards the sideline to give the QB more time to make a decision.
The receivers have to be ready for anything. During an RPO they are generally tasked with running their routes like a pass play but must be ready to block if it’s a run. Route-running is very important as the quarterback is throwing to a spot. Routes such as slants or bubble screens are common in order for them to get open quickly. In the event the quarterback hands the ball off or keeps it, the receivers are then tasked with run blocking.
Like wide receivers, running backs have to be ready for the ball in a moment’s notice. They must be patient as well, as the quarterback can made a split-second decision mid-play.