Is Jalen Hurts an RPO Mirage?
NFL Week 10 - Jalen Hurts and the Philadelphia Eagles offense are enjoying success thanks to the run-pass option (RPO).
The Eagles use the tactic more than any other team in the NFL. They get more production from it, both in their passing and running games, than any other team. They integrate the RPO with the read-option to strain opposing defenses in innovative ways. Opponents have not come close to figuring out how to stop them. Yet.
You probably have strong feelings about the long-range viability of the RPO as an NFL strategy. Walkthrough does too. The Eagles may be over-relying on a tactic that's often used as a set of training wheels for an inexperienced or limited quarterback.
The results so far, however, suggest that the Eagles have reinvigorated the strategy that enjoyed a brief vogue after it helped them win Super Bowl LII.
A Very Brief History of the Eagles and the RPO
The run-pass option is precisely what it claims to be on the label. The quarterback and running back mesh for a handoff. The quarterback makes a relatively simple post-snap read: typically the number of defenders in the box and/or the behavior of a slot defender in coverage. If the box is light, the quarterback hands off. If it's stacked, or if the slot defender is blitzing, crashing the run, or 15 yards off the line of scrimmage, the quarterback keeps the ball and delivers a quick slant or flat pass.
There's more to it than that, but that's the gist of it. Here's Steven Ruiz writing for USA Today in September of 2018, the height of the RPO fad, with an easy-to-understand breakdown.
The modern iteration of the RPO was introduced to the NFL in 2013 by Chip Kelly's Eagles; Kelly and other coaches cribbed it from college innovator Rich Rodriguez at the turn of the 21st century. Nick Foles enjoyed success with the RPO under Kelly and asked Doug Pederson and Frank Reich to re-introduce and re-emphasize it when he was thrust into the Eagles lineup in 2017. The Eagles won the Super Bowl, of course, and zillions of words were written about the exciting new concept.
The RPO is not designed to generate explosive plays. Defenses can minimize its impact just by executing properly: runs are runs, and short play-action passes will net minimal gains if defenders mind their assignments and tackle well. Offensive coaches were well aware of the RPO's limitations; it was always more of a media meme than a strategy destined to take the NFL by storm. Most of the teams that adopted it used it five or six times per game, usually on early downs to stay ahead of the sticks.
Over the last few years, over-reliance on the RPO has begun to look like a possible symptom of an unhealthy offense. The Dolphins and Steelers led the NFL in RPO passes last season, and both teams were clearly trying to hide the limitations of their quarterbacks. The Chiefs and Packers also used the tactic frequently, however, so there's clearly more to the RPO than just scheming up easy reads and short throws for shaky or creaky quarterbacks.
Now we just need to figure out whether the 2022 Eagles are more like the 2021 Dolphins or the 2021 Chiefs.
The Eagles and the RPO: Passing
Here are the Eagles RPO passing numbers and rankings, per Sports Info Solutions:
- Dropbacks: 44, 1st
- Attempts: 42, T-1st
- Completions: 35, 1st
- Yards: 293, 1st
- Touchdowns: 3, 2nd
- Interceptions: 0
- Sacks: 2
- Comp%: 83.3%
- Y/A: 7.0
- Yards Per Game: 37.1, 1st
The Packers are tied with the Eagles with 42 attempts, second with 32 completions, and third with 220 yards. The Dolphins have gained 229 yards and scored an NFL-high four touchdowns on 19-of-26 RPO passing.
The Eagles have the second-highest completion rate among teams that have attempted 20-plus RPO passes; the Ravens are precisely 17-of-20 on RPOs. The Dolphins, Ravens, and Bills all average more yards per attempt than the Eagles on RPOs, but they use them less frequently.
The Dolphins may represent the RPO ideal: they use it sparingly but effectively as a way to get the ball to their playmakers quickly. The Packers represent the RPO parody: tons of grimy little short passes that make Aaron Rodgers' completion rate look spiffy but produce just 5.2 yards per attempt.
The Eagles? They're somewhere in between, but leaning toward the Dolphins.
A quick rundown on the Eagles RPO receivers before we continue: Dallas Goedert: 8-of-8 for 91 yards and five first downs. AJ Brown: 6-of-11 for 56 yards, three first downs and two drops. All of the other Eagles RPO targets have stat lines in the four-catch, 26-yard range.
Watch an Eagles game and you will invariably see Goedert catch a quick play-action pass in the slot and rumble for meaningful yardage. Here's a fine example of a Goedert RPO which was imported all the way from Brazil, where they love the RPO:
Quem le minhas análises semanais de Philadelphia já ve essa jogada aqui desde a Semana 1. Os Eagles então transformam esse desenho em uma RPO (Run-Pass-Option) e colocam o TE Dallas Goedert saindo na flat. Assim a defesa precisa se preocupar com pelo menos 3 coisas ao mesmo tempo pic.twitter.com/PEWZoBxckw
— Psicologo da NFL (@PsicologoDaNFL) October 26, 2022
The Eagles and the RPO: Rushing
If the Eagles' RPO success consisted exclusively of flat passes to Dallas Goedert, the message would be: small sample size, easy adjustment for defense, low sustainability. But the "R" in RPO stands for "run," and the Eagles are running exceptionally well using the tactic.
A quick note: there is some obvious guesswork involved with classifying RPOs based on film study, especially when dealing with handoffs. Some of the plays listed as RPO runs in the Sports Info Solutions Datahub could just be outside zone runs where Jalen Hurts pretends to stare down a receiver after the handoff! But there are other RPO tells, such as receivers running short routes and the offensive line's reluctance to work downfield. And like it or not, the S.S. Subjectivity in Analytics set sail many years ago.
So here are the Eagles' RPO rushing stats and rankings:
- Attempts: 74, 3rd
- Yards: 391, 1st
- YPA: 5.3
- Touchdowns: 7, 1st
- Yards After Contact/Attempt: 2.1, 20th
The Chiefs and Packers have attempted more RPO rushes than the Eagles, averaging 4.1 and 4.8 yards per carry. (The Packers, remember, have played one more game.)
The Ravens average a whopping 8.3 yards per carry on RPO runs, the Bills 5.9 yards per carry on 48, and the Cardinals 5.6 yards per carry on 52. The Eagles are therefore fourth in yards per attempt among teams that use the tactic regularly. The Ravens' RPO success comes mostly from a few long Kenyan Drake runs; we must remain mindful of sample sizes when handling this data.
The Eagles' low YAC/attempt rate above illustrates that Miles Sanders and the others aren't breaking tons of tackles to generate yardage. They're often running through huge gaps. Jason Kelce, Lane Johnson, and company have a lot to do with that. But so does a scheme that makes sure they don't face many stacked boxes.
Here are the Eagles' rushing numbers against boxes of six defenders or less, RPO or non-RPO:
- Attempts: 116, T-2nd
- Yards: 634, 3rd
- YPA: 5.5, 14th
- Touchdowns: 5, T-1st
The Cardinals lead the NFL with 136 rushes against light boxes. The Cardinals and Bears have rushed for more yards than the Eagles against light boxes. All three teams benefit from some scrambles in the data: 323 yards (!) for the Bears, 182 for the Cardinals, 106 yards for the Eagles. The Eagles are in roughly the same range as the Chiefs, Bills, and Seahawks when it comes to scramble yardage against light boxes. The Eagles' YPA rate is middle-of-the-pack, but averaging 5.5 yards per carry on a frequently used running play is a good thing.
Setting the Bears aside as a Justin Fields-caused anomaly, the Cardinals are probably the best team in the NFL at manipulating boxes for the running game, but a) they cannot do anything else; and b) their offensive line is substandard. The Eagles are second-best in that category.
It's worth noting that the Eagles have led in the fourth quarter all season and should therefore face many heavy boxes. Opponents want to stop their running game. So why all the light boxes? You guessed it, the RPO. The Eagles have executed RPO rushes 46 times for 252 yards against light boxes. They are using the tactic precisely the way it is supposed to be used: not as a cheesy completion-rate booster but a way of making sure any choice the defense makes is wrong.
The Eagles and the Read-Option
The read-option and run-pass option are two different play concepts, but they share some DNA. Both give the quarterback a quick post-snap read. Both begin with a handoff mesh in the backfield. In the RPO, the quarterback can hand off or throw. In the read-option, he can hand off or run. It's all slightly more complicated than that, but the two concepts are actually meant to work in harmony. They rarely do at the NFL level, however, for complicated reasons. (They arrived in the NFL at different times; the RPO became associated with Nick Foles types; Aaron Rodgers ain't running any read-options; etc.)
The Eagles are an effective read-option team as well as a prolific RPO team. Here are their read-option stats and rankings:
- Attempts: 78, 2nd
- Yards: 315, 2nd
- Touchdowns: 4, T-2nd
- First Downs: 21, 2nd
- Yards Per Attempt: 4.0
The NFL leader in all read-option categories is, of course, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. KIDDING. It's the Ravens, naturally. No other team but the Ravens and Eagles rushed more than 50 times using the read-option; the Bears are third with 47 carries.
The Eagles' 4.0 yards per read-option rush isn't all that impressive, but there are some distortions at play. The Eagles have run the read-option in the red zone a league-high 20 times for 60 yards. They have used it with less than 2 yards to go for a first down 15 times for 23 yards. The Eagles use read-options as part of their short-yardage package more often than most teams, and that naturally nerfs their YPA a bit. There's also a surprise in the data coming in two paragraphs.
Miles Sanders leads the NFL with 45 read-option rushes; Lamar Jackson is second with 41. Sanders is second to Jackson with 210 yards, 4.7 yards per carry; Jackson has rushed for 432 read-option yards, which is crazytown.
Hurts has just 17 carries for 36 yards on read-option runs! The Hurts keeper is the least effective play in the Eagles' RPO/read-option arsenal. Eight tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage are the primary reason why.
There is one final play to consider: the "read-option pass." That's where the quarterback fakes a handoff, starts to run, then floats a short pass. It's like a read-option/RPO surf-'n'-turf. Here's one:
What a night for Dallas Goedert.
24 fantasy points and counting. pic.twitter.com/Vrf1lwS2u2
— NFL Fantasy Football (@NFLFantasy) November 4, 2022
Hurts finds DeVonta Smith!
The @Eagles answer with a 13-play, 75 yard drive.
— NFL (@NFL) October 17, 2022
The Eagles have attempted the "read-option pass" nine times, according to Sports Info Solutions. The Bears have used such plays four times, the Dolphins and Ravens three times. Hurts is 8-of-8 for 75 yards and three touchdowns on such plays, with one sack. A.J. Brown is 3-for-3 for 28 yards on such plays, Zach Pascal 3-of-3 for 38 yards, DeVonta Smith and Goedert have the plays you see above.
So the Eagles have a play they can use about once per game that works 89% of the time and averages nearly 10 yards per pop that few other teams even dare to attempt. And that play flows naturally from an offense built around lots of play-action meshes by a dual-threat quarterback.
The Eagles and the RPO: Conclusions
Let's try to process all the data above with an aggressively critical eye.
The Eagles are running NCAA bullsh*t that defenses will soon figure out.
Maybe. How long have you been saying that about the Ravens offense? Which part will be "figured out"? Why?
This junk won't work against great defenses.
Little works against great defenses. That's what makes them great. What the Eagles are doing makes as much sense as sending Jimmy Garoppolo out for more dink-and-dunkage or watching Kirk Cousins throw in front of the sticks on third-and-long for the 34th consecutive year.
The RPO won't work when the Eagles are playing from behind.
This is almost certainly true. All of the Eagles' run-pass and read-option packages are designed for situations when defenses must respect the run threat. When down by two scores, the Eagles might look like the Packers looked against the Bills on Sunday night two weeks ago: running the ball for 6 yards per clip while the clock ticks away.
Not many teams are built to come back from a two-score deficit late in the game. The Eagles don't have Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, pre-2022 Rodgers/Brady/Wilson or Tyreek Hill/Jaylen Waddle. That's not so much a weakness as the lack of a relatively rare strength.
The Eagles use the RPO to hide Hurts' limitations.
That's also true to some degree. Hurts has trouble seeing the middle of the field and throws some floaters beyond 25 yards, much like his college chums.
The Eagles rank 29th in the NFL in non-RPO pass attempts. Take away the RPO, and they are down in Falcons/Titans passing territory.
But guess what? The Eagles lead the NFL with 8.9 yards per pass attempt on non-RPOs! The Dolphins rank second in the NFL with 8.5 yards per attempt on non-RPOs, the Chiefs and Bills are tied for third. Whatever Nick Sirianni and Shane Steichen are doing to protect Hurts is clearly working.
Every competently coached offense is designed to maximize strengths and hide weaknesses. If Hurts were putting up Aaron Rodgers' RPO numbers, it would be a sign that the Eagles are desperately trying to manufacture completions. He's not, and everything from Hurts' non-RPO stats to the Eagles' rushing rates against stacked boxes suggests that the Eagles aren't using the RPO as a set of training wheels for their quarterback (or, in the Packers' case, to hide an awful receiving corps).
Weak defenses! Easy schedule!
Yes and yes. Now do the same thing for every quarterback in the league but poor Kenny Pickett. At some point, "adjusting" just becomes "naysaying."
What the Eagles are doing is not sustainable long-term.
Maybe. But there are some indicators that it may be:
- The RPO, read-option and other tactics are so smoothly integrated that it's hard to imagine some X-and-O solution that the average NFL defense could consistently execute.
- Hurts' lack of read-option rushing success may actually be a positive sign. The Eagles aren't the Bears, living and dying by their quarterback's mobility, or even the Ravens counting upon Jackson for chunk plays. If defenses really do load up to stop the RPO, Hurts likely has some 20-yard keepers up his sleeve.
- The Dolphins have now demonstrated that a team can grow from using the RPO in a suboptimal way to incorporating it into the NFL's most explosive offense. The Eagles won't be grabbing Tyreek Hill anytime soon, but Hurts has been consistently developing as a traditional passer for years and could keep doing so given this supporting cast.
"Long-term" is a slippery concept anyway, especially for an 8-0 team. Will the Eagles lose a game eventually? Yep! Will they lose in the playoffs? Our numbers say there's a better than 50% chance that they do. Could they lose to one of the AFC contenders if they do reach the Super Bowl? Certainly. Will the Eagles have trouble remaining a run- and RPO-heavy team when Kelce retires? Maybe. Will the Panthers have the last laugh when they go 9-8 in 2025 while Hurts is making $45 million per year to be the NFL's eighth-best quarterback or something? What exactly are we talking about here?
There is no reason to suspect that the Eagles offense will be "figured out" in 2022. Hurts and company will have off days, and folks will claim they have been "exposed" just as the Ravens have been exposed so many times in the last four years. But systemically, the RPO/read-option offense will be very difficult to stop so long as Hurts and the other key contributors remain healthy.
After that? Kelce retires, Hurts gets a contract, Steichen leaves to coach the Cardinals. It could all lead to Armageddon or just be a minor bump in the road. But none of it is likely to be the result of the Eagles using too much or too little RPO.