Before we get started, I want to provide the following disclaimer: I hate the run-pass option.
But the world needs more objective journalism; therefore, I accept the gauntlet thrown by the 49ersHub brass and will gladly provide an overview of the run-pass option (RPO).
Football plays are overly dressed in complexity and nuance. Even the great Bill Walsh, father of the wordy and multiple read West Coast Offense wrote the future of a play call would evolve into “single-word offensive audibles.” (Bill Walsh. Finding the Winning Edge. Sports Publishing, Inc. 1997. Page 308)
A play could be long or short, include elaborate protections and send four receivers on a wild route combination. I can distill any play down to one goal: find a one-on-one match-up and exploit it. An offense can send three blockers into an area where there is one defender to overwhelm him or pull a hulking 320-pound guard through the four-hole to obliterate anything in his path.
A power run, for example, always targets the same player on the edge. It can vary, but what Turlock High School ran in 1997 – Ted Left, 46 Power – was the same concept as Walsh’s 16/17 Power from 1985.
See the photos below.
45/46 Power was a staple play at Turlock High. We ran it at least four different ways, but did not pull the left guard. Above is from our base flexbone offense. The wingback doubled with the right tackle and then blocked the linebacker at the second level.
Here’s Walsh’s version of a power run. Both power runs attack the edge position and use similar blocking schemes. Instead of a fullback-wingback attack, Walsh pulls the left guard and asks the fullback to hit the SAM to clear the running lane.
A BOB/BOSS (Back on Backer or Back on Strong Safety) run through the four-hole is a fancy way to call a lead play. The fullback has one job: remove the linebacker (BOB) or the strong safety (BOSS) from the running lane by any means necessary.
From an aerial attack, a snag route combination places stress on the cornerback who has responsibility for the deep third of the field. If he jumps the outside route – a five-yard stop – the quarterback can hit the inside receiver running a corner route behind the defensive back. If the corner goes with the corner route, then the quarterback hits the stop route and takes five yards.
A standard football play tells the offense the formation, protection or blocking, direction of the run, any motions or shifts, snap count, or even for the team to check with the quarterback at the line.
An RPO tells the offense, “Look, we’re gonna run or pass. You’ll find out in a moment.”
Typically, the RPO isolates the outside linebacker or nickel defensive back, depending on what coverage the defense shows. Though, it’s possible to have an RPO confine any player on the defense.
Once the quarterback receives the ball, he will key on the outside linebacker (OLB). If the OLB leaves his space to crash the edge, the quarterback will throw the ball to a slot receiver. If the OLB remains in the area to cover the pass, the quarterback will hand the ball to the running back.
The offensive line works horizontally, limiting vertical movement to avoid a lineman downfield penalty. You may also notice a guard pulling on RPO plays, which creates more space when the inside linebackers flow with the pulling guard.
RPOs happen quickly so it can be tough to see who the quarterback is reading. Here are a few pointers.
When the offense is in a gun formation with the running back to the immediate left or right of the quarterback, and the receivers are in a twins set to the wide side of the field, start thinking that an RPO is coming.
The receivers could run any form of route combination, but often the slot receiver runs a bubble screen or takes a step forward and then stays put on the line of scrimmage. The outside receiver runs vertically to block the defensive back.
Even when the quarterback is targeting another defensive player, a nickel defensive back, the read remains the same. Should the nickel come crashing in on a blitz, the quarterback will throw a quick pass to a receiver. If the nickel stays put to play the pass, expect a run from the running back or quarterback.
RPOs do have value in a professional offense.
First, an RPO is an easy way to catch the defense playing soft or very lazy. An offensive coordinator may notice a defensive player who has been out of position and radio in an RPO play to take advantage of the match-up.
Second, RPOs are an excellent complement to a hurry-up offense. The defense is tired, has the wrong personnel on the field and is primed to give up yardage. The offense has the upper hand because it is controlling the tempo and has the right players in the right places. Its strategy provides the upper hand to pick on a linebacker.
Third, RPOs can attack a defensive player who is taking his first snaps late in the third quarter. This player has been sipping Gatorade and holding his helmet for 47 minutes. It's an ideal time to exploit him with a play that creates the wrong situation no matter what choice he makes.
Finally, if the secondary is dropping into a prevent defense, or aligns the defensive back 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, then why not use an RPO and take the yards the defense is willing to cede? Essentially, hitting the short route is nothing more than a check down or an extended handoff. There isn’t an offensive coordinator in the NFL who is going to frown upon a free 8 yards, even if the play is a one-read quick throw.
In an interview with the Harvard Business Review in 1993, Walsh said that a coach “must account for his ego.” (Rapaport, Richard. “To Build a Winning Team: An Interview With Head Coach Bill Walsh.” Harvard Business Review. January-February 1993.) It’s sage wisdom. Coaches, along with amateur sports writers, could use an ego check now and then.
The RPO isn't an offense, but a bullet in head coach and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's arsenal to use in response to defensive formations, blitzes or situations he and the team did not prepare for.
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