After being named a Pro Bowl alternate as a rookie, Mac Jones plummeted back to Earth under the weight of insufficient leadership and poor protection in his sophomore campaign. While his execution also fell short of expectations, including undeniable mechanical regression, neither he nor the rest of the offense was put in a position to succeed consistently.
Under new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, the hope is for improved structure, discipline, and subsequently a better on-field product. A highly-respected quarterback coach, O’Brien makes things easier on his signal-callers by providing answers to whatever look or coverage a defense presents. Few offensive plays achieve this goal better than run-pass-options, better known as RPOs.
RPOs put defenses in no-win situations by giving quarterbacks the option of handing the ball off or pulling it and passing to a receiver. This decision can be based on the defense’s pre-snap alignment, like how many players are in the box, or post-snap reaction, like reading whether or not a linebacker plays the run.
Though they’ve gained popularity in the modern game after being thought of as a college gimmick, RPOs are often mistaken for play-action or read option. Here are the key differences:
- Play-action: Blockers will simulate run, sometimes by firing off of the ball and/or pulling players, but linemen do not pass the line of scrimmage because there is no designed run element.
- Read option: Combines the dual-threat run element of a “read” concept, which isolates defensive linemen to create numbers advantages, with the passing element of an RPO. Unlike an RPO, the quarterback has the option to keep the ball on top of being able to hand off or throw.
The Chiefs and Eagles have been using RPOs consistently for over half a decade, but most think of Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins when thinking of these plays, and understandably so. With his lightning-quick release and processing, as well as impeccable short accuracy, few execute RPOs as effectively as Tagovailoa. The Patriots know this well, as he’s undefeated against New England since entering the pros.
The Patriots don’t have to replicate Miami or Philly, but Mac Jones showed the discipline, ball placement, and eye manipulation to excel on these plays.
Jones went 16-19 (one drop) on RPO attempts beyond the line of scrimmage in his senior season, averaging 20.2 yards per attempt and throwing six touchdowns. Despite this success, Jones has only thrown four such passes in the NFL for two completions and 37 yards.
Matt Patricia used significantly more RPOs as the offensive play-caller last season, but they were often poorly executed, and Jones didn’t complete either of his non-screen attempts.
Josh McDaniels has never been big on RPOs, as Tom Brady rarely executed them and almost exclusively did so while under center. Even with an uptick following Cam Newton’s signing in 2020, McDaniels rarely dialed them up and the vast majority were screen passes. It’s also possible McDaniels wanted to teach Jones the offensive fundamentals before spending practice time on something relatively foreign to their system.
Like McDaniels, O’Brien wasn’t big on RPOs for most of his career. While he began experimenting with them as head coach of the Texans when Deshaun Watson was drafted in 2017, he didn’t fully embrace them until Watson’s third season in 2019. O’Brien continued leaning on RPOs as Alabama’s offensive coordinator from 2021-2022, adapting his plays to suit pocket-passer Bryce Young. O’Brien has also historically paired these with a diverse run scheme, though inside zone is the main staple.
When looking at the Patriots’ free agent signings and draft picks, each offensive player has RPO experience. Former Dolphin Mike Gesicki, former Chief JuJu Smith-Schuster, and former Jaguar James Robinson come from teams that used RPOs at a top-10 rate last season. Sidy Sow, Atonio Mafi, and to a lesser extent Jake Andrews also executed this style of blocking in college. Between these additions, Jones’ proficiency, and O’Brien’s history, signs point to an uptick in RPO quality and quantity in 2023.
Here are Jones’ top routes and concepts from his time at Alabama, similar schemes O’Brien has run in the past, and how the Patriots’ current arsenal might fit.
The simplest of the plays on this list, quick outs create pitch-and-catch situations for chunks of yards against off-coverage. This can be a gamble against more aggressive corners (see: Jack Jones’ pick-six against Aaron Rodgers), but most defenders would rather give up an underneath throw than potentially get burned on a double move.
Mac Jones Quick Out
In this play from the 2020 National Championship against Ohio State, the Crimson Tide line up in a 3×1 or “trips” formation with Heisman-winner DeVonta Smith as the isolated receiver. With the Buckeyes playing a soft Cover 3, Smith runs a quick out against current Patriot Shaun Wade, who is overly aggressive in his bail. Jones does a nice job bringing his eyes to the mesh point and freezing the flat defender, then gets the ball out quickly and on target.
Texans Quick Out & Variations
O’Brien used a similar concept in Houston but typically from condensed 2×2 formations. He also attacked the flats from “twins” looks with the outside receiver running a go route and the slot receiver running a shorter speed out or stick.
Quick Out Candidates
Any of New England’s receivers can execute these plays, though Jones and Kendrick Bourne have shown chemistry on quick outs since 2021. Smith-Schuster is another likely candidate as a projected Z/slot, and slippery youngster Demario Douglas could turn these short throws into explosive plays.
Mac Jones’ bread and butter at Alabama, slants were his best and most-attempted route on RPOs.
Mac Jones RPO Slant Compilation
Then-offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian typically ran these with DeVonta Smith as the primary target as the point man in a stack or the backside receiver in trips. Smith’s contested catch ability and Jones’ ball placement made them a dangerous pair, as seen in this play.
Mac Jones RPO Slant to DeVonta Smith
Alabama comes out in a 3×1 with Smith isolated outside the numbers, prompting the boundary corner to play press man in Ohio State’s Cover 3 zone. Jones decides to capitalize on this matchup, once again bringing his eyes down and forcing the Buckeye linebackers to respect the run. This leaves a void over the middle for a throw to Smith, who makes a tough catch with the corner draped on him.
Alabama RPO ISOs
O’Brien deployed similar “ISO” routes with Bryce Young, using trips formations to create and take advantage of 1-on-1 matchups outside. These also included curls and adjustable go routes. O’Brien would often combine these with a route combination to the frontside, rather than having both receivers block. The most common was a stick, which featured at least one slot receiver sitting in space underneath and the outside receiver clearing out deep.
These concepts were more layered when O’Brien got to Houston. Rather than slants coming from outside the numbers, they came from condensed splits closer to the formation. This affords more space over the middle and dissuades press coverage. It also requires quarterbacks to read underneath coverage post-snap rather than predetermine based on pre-snap alignment, as shown in the play below.
Texans RPO Slant
The Chiefs respond to Houston’s jet motion by dropping one of their safeties, revealing Cover 3. Watson watches the defenders bite on run action, then throws it over their heads for a big gain to Will Fuller.
The Patriots have several slant specialists on offense, but DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki stand out as bigger bodies with bear traps for hands.
Slant Candidates (Big Bodies)
Parker struggled out of the gate last season but became a big-play threat when healthy and was automatic on quick in-breakers. Gesicki is bigger than every cornerback he lines up against with the catch radius and mits to haul in anything nearby. He was one of Tagovailoa’s favorites on these plays back in 2021 and should catch on quickly with Mac’s accuracy.
Slant Candidates (Explosive)
If the team wants more explosiveness after the catch, Boutte was a dynamic slant runner at LSU and Bourne has had some electric moments on these routes when targeted in the slot.
Most RPOs are high-percentage plays designed to hit underneath, but teams can also go vertical with proper timing and a quarterback who consistently delivers. This makes go routes a popular option for backside receivers facing press coverage.
Mac Jones RPO Fade to DeVonta Smith
Mac Jones and DeVonta Smith connected on a pair of these shots with Shaun Wade in coverage. On the first play, Jones delivers a backshoulder pass with Wade making jamming off the line and playing on top of the route. But on the second, Jones lets Smith run under the ball after seeing his receiver is even with the corner. Both times the quarterback uses his eyes to hold the deep safety.
Texans RPO Go Variations
O’Brien featured go routes in his RPO scheme at Alabama as mentioned in the previous section, but most converted to hitches due to blitzes or soft coverage. He also tried including them with the Texans, but didn’t have much success.
Texans RPO Switch Verticals
Traditional go variations didn’t work for Houston, but they thrived using switch verticals. These were often paired with a backside slant and featured a slot receiver running a wheel, the outside receiver streaking down the seam, and a checkdown option sliding underneath.
Dolphins RPO Switch Verticals
If this looks familiar, that’s because the play has become a staple of the Dolphins’ passing attack and been a pain in the Patriots’ side for years. But with O’Brien back in the building, that tide could be turning in favor of New England.
After his rough start, Parker was almost automatic when targeted on deep 1-on-1, making him the leading candidate to win outside the numbers. Tyquan Thornton struggled to win vertically against NFL physicality last season, but there are shades of DeVonta Smith that the Patriots are likely hoping shines through in his second season.
Demario Douglas Jet Wheel
Demario Douglas has already shown his speed can be dangerous on the jet wheel route popularized by Tyreek Hill, making him a perfect candidate for that role.