Why the Dallas Cowboys Need the Run-Pass Option (RPO) in 2018

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 31: Running back Ezekiel Elliott
PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 31: Running back Ezekiel Elliott /

Use of the run-pass option is growing in the NFL and if the Dallas Cowboys install it like we think they will, we could see their predictable offense become anything but.

The Jason Garrett led offense often gets tagged with disparaging labels like, “predictable” or “uncreative”. While this is hardly an uncommon judgment bestowed upon long-tenured offensive-minded coaches with little postseason success, it’s still true nonetheless.

The Dallas Cowboys have found their most recent offensive success doing predictable things great. When they have better talent, heath, and execution they can dominate a game (I give you the offensive line and running game from 2016). But if any of those three things goes wrong, the team is unable to overcome their predictability and suffers accordingly (2017).

Incorporating run-pass option plays is a way to change that.

We have discussed the run-pass option (or RPO) a lot this offseason. We saw the success of RPO in the 2017 postseason and we saw a variety of diverse offenses like the Eagles, Packers, and Jaguars install it into their offenses quite successfully.

Given the Dallas Cowboys core personnel, their offseason moves this spring, and the growing trend of RPO in the NFL, we have reason to believe Garrett and Linehan intend to use it this season as a way to turbo boost their offense.

The RPO is not a gimmick (like the wildcat was) or dangerous to the quarterback (like the read-option). It’s an unpredictable option of either pass or run that relies on decision-making and quick-thinking from its QB. Earlier today, I broke down what the RPO is, the plays that often come with it, and the benefits it provides. If you haven’t read it yet please do so because many people get confused by what it is exactly:

Related Story: Explaining the Run-Pass Option in the NFL

Perfectly compatible

The important thing to keep in mind is the RPO is perfectly compatible with the Dallas Cowboys pro-style offense that uses 11 personnel. It was originally developed for run-heavy teams who subsequently face seven or eight-man boxes on a regular basis.

Adding a pass-option to an otherwise standard run play (the offensive line run-blocks on all RPOs) victimizes defenses that cheat extra players in the box to stop the run.

And as all Cowboys fans know – opponents like to stack the box against Ezekiel Elliott.

Note: Adding RPO to the playbook does not require it be run every snap. The top teams that used RPO in 2017 only used it for 10-20 percent of their plays. Once you prove you can do it, defenses start to respect it and back off – creating all new opportunities.

Ideally, a team can get so good at the RPO they can make the RPOs look like play-action passes, the play-action passes look like running plays, and the running plays look like RPOs. It’s not creative play-calling but rather well-executed play.

Adds creativity to an uncreative offense

The RPO automatically makes every offense more creative. It makes pre-snap “ratio reads” that count what sections of the field defenders have the advantage and where they are most vulnerable. It uses bubble screens, pop passes, slants etc… to punish teams who dedicate too many players to stop the run. Then, it uses the threat of those passes to cause hesitation in the defenses actions against the run.

There is an answer to everything the defense does with the RPO. RPO is creative because it’s ever-changing. Being so new to the NFL, we’ve only scratched the surface of its potential. But even now, it’s clear there isn’t a “trick” to beating it. It’s a play that’s determined by defensive vulnerability. A defense can fool a QB into an incorrect decision but it’s not a problem that can simply be “solved”.

Plays to the strengths of the team

The Dallas Cowboys have a power running game – something the RPO was created to protect. They remade their receiving corps into route-running technicians – something  RPO demands. The Cowboys value short passes and ball control – something the RPO fully supports. They even have a savvy QB who can handle both the mental and physical demands – something the RPO requires.

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People argue about Dak Prescott a lot, and while many debate his accuracy and anticipation, his decision-making is rarely called into question. Dak keeps the ball safe and generally makes good decisions with the ball. That’s what you need in an RPO.

After presnap reads, RPO usually asks the signal-caller to follow the conflict defender(s). Based on that defender’s actions, the QB makes his choice: Hand it off or throw it. He can even keep it and run the rock himself if he sees an opportunity. What it doesn’t have him do is sit back in the pocket and try to create something out of nothing (there’s no time for that since he must throw the ball before the linemen get too far downfield).

The great news with RPO is that it takes the creativity out of the coaches hands.

Its very nature is to be unpredictable until the moment the play unfolds. The onus is no longer on Garrett and Linehan. It’s all about making the right call based on the defenses personnel, alignment, and actions.

The RPO is far from perfect but when incorporated into an offense like the Dallas Cowboys’, it can be quite the weapon.

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The RPO pairs perfectly with the Dallas Cowboys’ running game and will put Dak Prescott in a position to succeed. It fits with the rebuilt receiving corps and will stress ball control and restraint over improvisation.