For more than a decade, RPOs have been a powerful force in high school and college football. They simplify the game for quarterbacks and force defenders to hesitate. They take advantage of a subtle difference between lower levels and the pros: In college, offensive linemen can legally block up to three yards downfield on passing plays; in the NFL, it’s up to one yard.
But in the past few years, as the spread offense has, uh, spread throughout the NFL, the RPO has taken hold in the pros, too. In 2018, Philadelphia used RPOs to help upset New England in Super Bowl LII. Last year, Washington upset Philadelphia in part because the Commanders’ defense disrupted the Eagles’ RPOs by attacking the “mesh point” — the spot where the quarterback and running back meet — to continually force the ball out of the hands of dynamic quarterback Jalen Hurts.
During camp, it’s become clear RPOs will be a major part of the West Coast scheme offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy brought with him from Kansas City. The Chiefs used RPOs often and to great effect under Bieniemy, and Sam Howell’s experience with them in college at North Carolina suggests the Commanders may lean on them even more.
Howell, who’ll start the preseason opener Friday night in Cleveland, seems nearly giddy to show his ability with RPOs.
“That’s pretty much all we did in college,” he said. “All of our run game stuff in college was RPO stuff, and last year’s [Commanders] offense wasn’t near as much as that. But in Eric Bieniemy’s offense, there is a lot of RPO stuff, and a lot of stuff that I’m very familiar with. Similar concepts, some of the same exact concepts that we ran at UNC. So I’m very confident in my RPO game … and I think you can really make defenses wrong in the run game when you have the RPO ability.”
By design, it can be difficult to tell the difference between an RPO, play action from shotgun and “zone read,” which can look like an RPO but only has the options of run (keeper) or run (handoff). One of the main tenets of an RPO is that it incorporates a run and a quick pass, such as a slant. The quarterback’s job is to read the key defender, often a linebacker or an end, and decide whether to run or pass. If he passes, he must get the ball out quickly so the offensive line, which is run blocking, isn’t penalized for having an ineligible player downfield.
Center Nick Gates said every player is used to RPOs because they’re so common at lower levels. When Gates played at Nebraska, where the offense is about as old-school as it gets in college, he used the concept from 2015 to 2017. For RPOs, a lineman has to get into blocks slower by taking choppier steps up to his defender — but sometimes, if he’s downfield and engaged in blocks, a referee doesn’t call the penalty. Everything hinges on the quarterback’s decisiveness.
“If you get down there and you get called [for a downfield penalty], it’s not really on you,” Gates said.
“I feel like everybody in the NFL uses RPO nowadays,” he added. “It’s an easy way to get five, 10 yards, maybe break it for a touchdown. … If [defenses] want to stack the box or bring that linebacker down [toward the line of scrimmage], you could pop that little slant in right behind, and it’s five, 10 yards. And when you have special athletes — and I think we have really good athletes as wide receivers — then you never know when that ball could just pop [for a big gain].”
In the new offense, receiver Dyami Brown said, he and Howell have picked up the RPO components quickly. Brown played with Howell at North Carolina, and it’s not just that the concepts are familiar; in some cases, the terminology is the same. Brown said Bieniemy’s name for an RPO slant is the exact same as what it was called in the Air Raid scheme at North Carolina.
“It’s crazy,” Brown said, grinning.
Last year against Dallas, in Howell’s first and only career start, former offensive coordinator Scott Turner seemed to call few RPOs. But on one play, which looked like an RPO, Howell demonstrated a subtle strength that could help the Commanders as they run the concept this season. He kept the ball, and a defensive end, who read it correctly, started chasing him toward the right sideline. Howell moved right, kept his eyes downfield, saw all four receivers covered and ultimately threw the ball away.
That play illustrated the value of Howell’s mobility. Even if a defense reads an RPO correctly, even if it applies pressure, Howell could still avoid the worst-case scenario (a sack) with athleticism and decision-making.
The specific questions about RPOs cut to the heart of the broader ones about Howell and Bieniemy. Can Howell process quickly in a scheme and consistently make correct decisions? Can Bieniemy’s play-calling mix in RPOs so they elevate the scheme and not become predictable or a crutch? If the answers are yes, it could lead to better results and more confidence.