When somebody tells me they “love a fair fight,” I know they’re a loser. The last thing I want is for my fights to be fair. I want them to be as lopsided and unequal as possible – in my favor, of course. If I can’t stack the deck, I’ll wait until I do have an advantage: then I’ll attack. – Richard Marcinko
Navy SEAL Richard Marcinko’s quote is one of the cornerstones of our football program at Elkhorn South High School. We believe it is our job as coaches to put our players in an advantageous position on the football field, to only enter them into unfair fights, fights that have already been won before they’ve fought. RPOs give us the tools to accomplish this goal.
RPOs accomplish the primary goals of an offense; they create space and create a numbers advantage. With RPOs, we only throw the ball when the receiver is wide open, we only run the ball when we have favorable numbers. It also allows us to take advantage of the Outside Linebacker on any given play.
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Bill Gates once said, “Knowledge is the reduction of uncertainty. Preparation is the reduction of random error.” Gates’s quote is the second crucial part of the equation. In order to take advantage of an unfair fight, a quarterback must be able to recognize where on the field the unfair fight is located and be able to act decisively to take advantage of it. If he doesn’t know why he made a decision, then he won’t be able to repeat his success. As coaches, we need to give a quarterback the framework to recognize what he sees and act with a high degree of decisiveness and accuracy.
This article will focus on the philosophy behind our RPOs, the importance of quarterback decision-making in executing RPOs, and the schemes behind two of our RPOs: Stick/Draw and Power/Pop from 2×2 sets.
Most of our quarterbacks at Elkhorn South have baseball backgrounds. The best Major League Baseball hitters never give away an at-bat, no matter the game situation or score. They know they only get so many ABs in a game, a season. It’s the same thing with offensive snaps. We never want to give away an AB (offensive snap), no matter the game situation or score. RPOs make our ABs more efficient. We optimize the opportunity cost of each snap.
If, as a play caller, I just “blind call” a “footsteps-painted-on-the-ground”/“locked” play, then I haven’t optimized the opportunity cost of that snap. By “locked” play, I mean a play in which we are committed to one course of action, a play in which there is no option for the quarterback to “change our plans” pre- or post-snap. Locked plays put a great deal of pressure on the play caller to guess right about what the defense is going to do. If I guess wrong, we will be running or passing into a disadvantaged situation. In order to maximize opportunities, the quarterback must have freedom within structure. If he has this freedom and knows how to use it effectively, he can make me “right” as a play caller, even if I guess wrong about what the defense is going to do.
If I blind call a locked play, there’s a strong chance that we’ll have to “swing at a ball out of the strike zone, a pitcher’s pitch”. With RPOs, we are able to change our plan after the defense aligns and after the ball is snapped. As Derek Silvers noted, “How to thrive in the unknowable future? Choose the plan with the most options. The best plan is the one that lets you change your plans.” For us to change our plans after the play call and have it work, the coach, quarterback, and receivers must all share the same reality, see the same open grass, and work together to create the same space. The players must know not only what they are doing, but why they are doing it.
The Importance of quarterback Decision-Making
Don Faurot once said, “A football team is no better offensively than the judgment of its quarterback.” The quality of the decisions made at the quarterback position determines the scope of our offense because, if we have a bad decision-maker at quarterback, we have to limit the number of decisions he makes, which limits our ability to adapt to changing situations on the field. With a bad decision-maker at quarterback, we have to run locked plays and can’t change our plans after the play call. The more freedom within structure a quarterback can handle, the more defensive weaknesses we can attack by changing our plans pre- and post-snap.
If the quarterback can’t physically make a throw, a receiver isn’t actually open. Receivers will always be running wide open when the offense has a quarterback who can’t physically make the throw since the defense knows they don’t have to guard that area of the field. A weak-armed quarterback facing a fast defense only has access to very tiny windows in a defense because defensive speed essentially makes the field smaller. RPOs are valuable because they allow a non-mobile quarterback to create space for his teammates. He can create bigger windows in the defense with scheme and quick decisions instead of relying on a strong arm or mobility.
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However, a receiver isn’t open if a quarterback can’t see him in the progression. The structure of an RPO gives the quarterback throws he can physically make; we as coaches need to give him clear reads and repetitions in making them.
We want to eliminate uncertainty for our quarterback by eliminating any excess information he doesn’t need to make his decision and making sure every coach uses the same verbiage when addressing quarterback reads on a given play.
If a quarterback knows exactly what he is looking for and how to react then he will be decisive. As Ron Jaworski noted, “Indecision is the most destructive force on the football field.” How can quarterback indecision be reduced?
John Iannucci believes that “more offensive failure comes from quarterback indecision than anything else.” After a poor decision, ask the quarterback what he saw. Understand his why. Don’t seek to correct imperfect results, but strive to teach the quarterback how to make smarter decisions. Correcting errors is a short-term fix. Building decision-making is a long-term investment. Mike Martz believes that “if a quarterback truly understands what he’s seeing, he’ll make good decisions. If he doesn’t know why he’s doing it, he won’t be able to consistently do it.”
“Most coaches I’ve talked to don’t realize the value of CONSISTENCY in verbiage throughout their staff. The mind records everything as photographs. Every time the quarterback hears a different phrasing, he gets a different picture to interpret it,” Iannucci says. “If I teach the quarterback ‘Give unless the handoff key makes a direct path in front of the running back’ and you say to him ‘Give the ball unless the handoff key tackles the running back,’ we have in essence given two very different messages to the quarterback.” The messages to the quarterback on reads must be the same from every coach or the quarterback’s decision-making process will become polluted and slowed.
Most of our reads are binary or “light switch” reads because they are either/or reads. One of my biggest influences as a coach has been Tony DeMeo. His teaching process is “I will do X every time unless Y.” This template leads to quick decisions by the quarterback because he has a trigger. He has a default action and a reaction. For example, if you tell the quarterback to throw opposite of the post safety on 4 Verticals, where does the quarterback throw if the free safety drops straight back? What’s opposite of straight back?
As Iannucci notes, a hitter in baseball has a simple approach: “I’m going to swing unless the ball is outside the strike zone.” We use a similar approach in our run game. For example, on Jet Read: “I will pull the ball every time unless the read key blocks my path, then I will hand it off.” We will discuss our RPO reads later.
We spend a lot of time talking about “picking on the little brother in the backyard.” When you play keep-away from your little brother, you and your friend get just far enough apart that whichever way your little brother runs, he’s a step too late to get there. We want to create the same no-win situation for whatever defender we put in conflict on an RPO.
If the quarterback doesn’t throw the ball when his read tells him to on an RPO, he’s making the job harder for his teammates; we’re running the ball against unfavorable numbers. In basketball, Kentucky Coach John Calipari claims, “I’ve never pulled a shooter for missing shots, but I have pulled him for not taking shots. If your team works hard to get you ‘your’ shot, it’s selfish to pass it up. You’re passing the buck.”
RPOs are powerful, but they are not cheap. As a result, we only run a few so that our quarterbacks understand what to look for and how to react. In order to run an RPO efficiently, we must teach the quarterback how to gather and process information: We have to show him how to gather the right information and how to process it. We can’t get him enough opportunities if we run too many RPO concepts out of too many formations.
The quarterback must distribute the ball to the player with the best opportunity to make yards. To do this consistently, he must have a ton of opportunities in practice to make decisions against a variety of looks. The quarterback must know where his pre-snap and post-snap read sides are located. If you run a lot of RPOs and your quarterback isn’t a good decision-maker, your offense will be inefficient and turn the ball over a lot.
One of Mike Leach’s cornerstones is that offenses want to create space and defenses want to constrict it. RPOs give us the tools to hold defenders in place to create voids, to create open grass.
In his book The Perfect Pass, S.C. Gwynne talked about how Hal Mumme’s mesh concept frustrated defenses by adapting to the defense and seemingly morphing into a different play: “In a good con game, the mark doesn’t know he’s been conned. Defenders think they’ve been beaten by the structure of the play when they’ve actually been beaten by the idea behind it.” Mumme’s mesh is an expensive play. Reps are needed to get all the offensive players to “decode” the field in the same way. The same is true of RPOs.
Andrew Coverdale said, “The goal on RPOs is to find out what rules the defenders are following and then make them ‘wrong’ for doing their jobs.” RPOs use traditional defensive run/pass keys (high hat/low hat) against the defense. Coverdale notes, “The rule allowing offensive linemen to be 3 yards downfield is extremely relevant because it allows offenses to actually block run plays while the quarterback is still throwing passes across the line of scrimmage.”
For example, in a 4-3 Split Safety zone defense against a 2×2 set, the outside linebackers have both a run fit and a pass drop. This was not a big deal when they could get a true run/pass read like they used to when low hat/high hat reads were accurate. But since front and coverage are linked, their two jobs are in direct conflict. If we align for success and make accurate reads, they are the “little brothers in the backyard,” doomed to failure before the ball is even snapped.
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Sun Tzu believed that “the highest realization of warfare is to attack the enemy’s plans.” Putting a defender in conflict attacks the defense’s plans.
If a quarterback recognizes the assumptions the defense is making, he is in a powerful position. Marcinko also said, “If you want to win your battles, let your competition make assumptions – and then find out what they are. If you know your enemy’s assumptions, you have captured the element of surprise. And if you hold the element of surprise, you can determine the rules of engagement. You can control where you engage the enemy, when you engage them, and how extensive the battle will be.”
RPOs dictate the rules of engagement to the defense. The best investors seek asymmetrical risks and rewards, using the least amount of risk to get the maximum amount of upside. We want to only run the ball when we have numbers and only throw the ball when a receiver is wide open.
We like our RPOs out of 10 personnel 2×2 sets since we can play fastest in our 2×2 sets and we have access to RPOs in our two-minute offense.
Two of our most successful RPOs are Stick/Draw and Power/Pop. In both schemes, the offensive line is blocking the run concept (Draw or 1-Back Power) and the receivers are running their pass routes. The quarterback gets the ball into the hands of the player who has the best chance to gain yards.
In both Stick/Draw and Power/Pop, the offensive line, at the simplest level, has 4-down the play-side linebacker, but how they get to their assignments differs.
Stick/Draw is one of our best answers to teams that play a 4-3 Split Safety defense with the outside linebackers in the “grey” area.
Defenses used to have the best of both worlds against us in 2×2 sets when they aligned in a 4-3 Split Safety defense. They were able to use their best “space players” in the box vs. the run game and in coverage vs. the pass. The outside linebackers aligned in the grey area and read high hat/low hat on the offensive tackle. Their keys got them into the box against the run and into a pass drop against drop back. The Stick/Draw scheme allowed us to determine the rules of engagement and used their keys and coaching against them. The more decisive the outside linebackers were, the easier they were to read. Outside linebackers who played in the grey area (aligned inside the #2 receiver) were tough for the #2 receiver to block in the run game. But as Tony DeMeo said, “Tough to block, easy to read.” The same grey area outside linebacker who was tough for the #2 receiver to block was easy for the quarterback to read. When we aligned #2 for success, the outside linebacker had to trigger early or cheat his alignment to be a factor. He had to make a definitive move to get into the box as a run player or drop into his zone as a pass defender.
In addition to having an alignment advantage on our #2 receiver, the outside linebacker often had a physical advantage when the Slot tried to block him in the open field. The outside linebacker was bigger than our Slot and when the Slot had to sustain his block for an extended period of time in the open field, he held. Our Slots were quicker than the outside linebacker, though, and were at an advantage running a route on him. The toughest tasks in football are tackling in the open field and blocking in the open field. RPOs force the defense to tackle in the open field against an advantaged receiver and lessen the amount of time our receivers have to block in disadvantaged situations.
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On Stick/Draw, we make the outside linebacker the “little brother in the backyard.” No matter what he does, he’s wrong. We attach the “Stick” to the back-side of the play. The offensive line blocks 4-down to the play-side linebacker, in this case the Mike. The back-side outside linebacker is the player in conflict. The #1 receiver on the back-side stalk blocks the cornerback. #2 runs what we call a Stick, but it’s really just a Hitch, at 6 yards. (Diagram 1)
We will always set the runningback to the side of the blocked play-side linebacker. For example, on “Draw Right,” the runningback aligns to the right. The Stick will always be attached to the back-side of the play so on Draw Right, the Stick is on the left side.
Versus a 4-1 Grey Box with Split Safeties, the Mike will be the play-side linebacker and the “Conflict” linebacker will be the outside linebacker opposite of the directional call. For example, on “Draw Right Stick,” the Conflict linebacker will be the outside linebacker on the quarterback’s left side. (Diagram 2)
If we were running “Draw Left Stick” in the picture below (Diagram 3), the Mike would be the play-side linebacker and the outside linebacker on the right side of the picture would be the Conflict linebacker.
We always attach a “Gift” to the play side. A Gift is a free-access throw. If the defense is going to give away an area of the field with no resistance, we will accept their Gift. The Gift acts as a constraint and protects the play on the front-side by having #1 run a Mandatory Outside Release Fade and #2 run a Speed Out. If the play-side outside linebacker creeps into the box, the quarterback can throw the Speed Out to #2. If the defense gets the back-side outside linebacker out of conflict by playing Man defense, the Fade/Out combinations gives the quarterback a built-in answer. If they do this extensively, the quarterback run game is a great answer against Man.
If a defense gets the back-side outside linebacker out of conflict by playing a 4-2 box with a Post Safety, we can adapt the play to a Quarterback Draw (with the runningback blocking the additional hat in the box). If the defense consistently aligns in Post Safety, we have dictated the rules of engagement and will attack with 4 Verticals or another one of our RPOs, Power/Pop.
We instruct the quarterback to take the pre-snap play-side Gift (Speed Out by #2) if it’s there. The quarterback must throw the Gift if it is there to keep the other outside linebacker from coming into the box and making the tackle on the Draw. If the Gift is not there, he takes a drop, sits on his back foot and makes his post-snap read. His read: “I will throw the Stick every time if it’s wide open; if not, I will hand off the football and fake a throw (Favre it).”
The #2 back-side receiver can increase his chances of getting the ball by taking a “plus” split. This increases the amount of distance that the “little brother” has to cover and prevents the defender from “sitting in the window” to delay the quarterback’s decision. Time is on the side of the defense; that’s why we want to “align for success”. The wide alignment will “open the window” for the Stick. A “plus” split by #2 also forces the “Conflict” linebacker to declare his intent by alignment. Can the outside linebacker get back into the box to play the run or is he overcommitted to denying the Stick through his alignment? Intelligent alignment by #2 helps reduce pre-snap uncertainty for the quarterback.
If the quarterback throws the ball, he is throwing it to a wide-open receiver on a short throw so our completion percentage is high. Because the quarterback makes the throw only if it’s wide open, there is very little chance of the pass being intercepted.
The running back slides to the quarterback and waits for the ball. If the Stick is thrown, it will be right away. If the ball is handed off, it will be on a delayed draw since the quarterback has to get his eyes to the Conflict linebacker to force him to commit to the run or the pass.
The offensive line must take plus splits since our goal is to create space and running lanes and make the defense tackle one-on-one. We will fold the “lowest technique” defensive line. If the both techniques are “equal” (i.e. twin 2 techs), we want to fold to the “call” side. We must get movement on the lowest technique so the puller can fold around the block.
Stick/Draw works best on first and second down when the defense is not looking for Draw and the defense has its highest level of uncertainty. We also see fewer stunts on first and second down and stunts blow up Stick/Draw. We want to put our offensive line on the advantaged side of an unfair fight.
While we favor Stick/Draw against Split Safety defenses, we like Power/Pop most against Post Safety defenses. On Power/Pop, we also attach the Fade/Speed Out combo to the front-side of the play to give our quarterback and answer to Man Coverage or unfavorable numbers in the box. We play a game off the back-side inside linebacker this time. He’s the little brother since, in a zone defense, he’s in conflict. He has both a run fit and a pass drop. Additionally, the back-side inside linebacker is often the toughest defender to block in a run scheme so we Pop him instead of blocking him.
On a traditional run/run option, the quarterback reads the back-side defensive end/C gap player. On Power/Pop, we need to block the back-side defensive end so the quarterback is protected to throw. The quarterback will be playing a game off the back-side linebacker instead of the back-side defensive end. The Pop receiver needs to find a dead spot in the zone behind the linebacker and in front of the near Safety. He looks for an uncapped tube. (Diagram 4)
We’ve found RPOs to be much better than Play Action Passes since they displace linebackers. A play fake to a runningback when the offensive line is showing high hat level and pass blocking is not very effective. Offensive linemen aren’t good actors; they are great attackers. On RPOs like Power/Pop, our offensive line attack as run blockers instead of acting. We reduce uncertainty in our offensive line and create uncertainty in the linebackers.
The back-side linebacker is the key block on Power. If he sees the puller and shoots the gap, he will destroy the play. We will protect against this by Popping him. We use his coaching against him. We get the chalk last.
On Power/Pop, the quarterback can take the front-side gift/Man-Beater or move on to his post-snap read: “I will hand off the ball every time unless the back-side linebacker makes a definitive downhill move to play the run.” If the quarterback is not sure, we want him to hand off the ball since the offensive line is blocking for the run. On all our plays, we want the ball to being going north/south as the “default” or “every time unless…” decision. We believe that is how we extend “at-bats” and avoid “swinging at pitcher’s pitches.” Speaking of baseball, our quarterbacks with middle infield experience do well with RPOs since they are used to turning double plays and can get the ball out of the mesh and to the Pop in a hurry.
The Pop receiver is going to “find grass” so the quarterback can throw the ball where the linebacker would have had the responsibility to drop. When the linebacker flows because of the run action, capture the grass that he has just left.
The back-side #2 receiver runs the Pop. Since the Pop is running “to grass” instead of at a set angle or number of steps, we’ve found that some players have a better intuitive feel for the route than others. Our best kids have been soccer players since they are used to moving without the ball and have good spatial awareness.
The back-side #1 receiver on Power/Pop runs a 5-yard “In” route. This gives the quarterback a place to go with the football if the back-side inside linebacker makes a definitive downhill move to play the run, but an outside linebacker slips inside #2 and gets into the throwing lane. If the quarterback gets a “pull” read, sets his feet to throw the ball, but sees a flash of color in front of the Pop, he can take the “Danger Throw,” the In as his outlet. The Pop is his Action throw and the In is his Reaction throw. If the alley player aligns inside the “Pop” and puts his hands on him, he is not in position to stop the In route in behind him.
I’d like to thank our Offensive Line Coach George Drinnin, Sr., and Quarterback Coach Jacob Rapp for their contributions to our program at Elkhorn South; all offensive success starts up front with the offensive line and the scope of an offense is determined by quarterback play.
Guy Rosenberg has amassed an impressive 45-12 record as the head coach at Elkhorn South (Neb.) High School. He guided the Storm to back-to-back undefeated state championships in 2015 and 2016 (13-0, 13-0). Elkhorn South led Class B in Scoring Offense (41.5) and Total Offense (435.5), averaged 7.7 yards per play and were + 18 in Turnover Margin in 2016.
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