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RPOs aren’t even the most communist thing about college football

Pat Fitzgerald’s metaphor is wrong. But individual defensive liberty is indeed is the best way to stop run/pass options.

NCAA Football: Duke at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Here is a comment from Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald:

What is he talking about? Let’s sort through it.

Someone asked Fitzgerald at his Tuesday press conference if he was prejudiced against run/pass options because of his defensive background.

And Fitzgerald launched into a riff on college football’s rule allowing offensive linemen to go up to three yards downfield before a QB throws a pass. That three-yard rule (as compared to the one-yard limit in the NFL) has been key in the rise of RPOs this decade. Linemen being allowed to run-block for longer is how most college QBs get time to make option reads.

Here’s Fitzgerald:

“Yeah, it’s communism. RPO is the purest form of communism. I don’t understand how offensive linemen can be downfield. It used to be ... when you tripped and fell down, it was an illegal man downfield. Now, if you’re just an uncovered lineman and you go 2.3 yards, it’s not a penalty, but if you go 3, it is, and nobody can see it till after the ball’s thrown. Again, it’s the rules. You can complain all you want. If I wanna get it fixed, I guess I can beg to get on the rules committee. But it’s the most en vogue change, I think, in football, that if you’re a purist of football, it’s not the game. It’s not. People downfield-blocking and the ball being thrown should be illegal.”

First, the RPO is all about one party deceiving another to achieve a massive personal gain. So it’s fairly capitalist.

Beyond that key point (first made by Streaking the Lawn’s Paul Wiley), consider what communism actually is: a system that replaces private property and profit-making with public ownership of the means of production and a requirement that people work for the state’s benefit.

One example of a communist model — just to spitball here — would be a system that lets large, predominantly state-run institutions keep all of the profits produced by workers, who in turn receive standardized rations of food, room, and board, but aren’t allowed to keep money they earn for their work unless the system specifically allows it.

Then again, that doesn’t sound like a system Fitzgerald would ever get involved with.

RPOs aren’t all that new, and they’re likely not going away soon. It’s wrong to paint them as some fleeting thing (uh, like communism?).

Calling them “en vogue” in the same answer, Fitzgerald appears to be using the communist metaphor to paint a picture of RPOs as a sweeping fad that might soon go away. (Because attempts by the U.S. establishment to get rid of communism at home and abroad have historically gone great.)

The NFL’s just come around to the RPO movement over the last few seasons. But RPOs didn’t magically pop up this decade. Football scheme usually filters upward through levels over years (high school ———> college ———> pro). The RPO has roots in 1990s high school wing-T offenses, and college coaches have used similar plays for years.

For instance, former Kentucky coach Hal Mumme was basically running them in 1997, even though they weren’t labeled RPOs at the time, he once told SB Nation:

We couldn’t block Jevon Kearse, and so we told Tim Couch to either throw a bubble screen or hand the ball off. It was so easy to do. I don’t know why we didn’t keep doing it. We probably should have.

But when it comes to stopping RPOs, it could be argued that communism is the incorrect approach.

You see, the RPO is at its most destructive when employed against a zone defense: a system where, in theory, an individual sacrifices his or her individual liberties for the benefit of the state. Coaches will tell you zone defenses make it hard for defenders to sort out their responsibilities against an RPO.

Consider what happened in Week 1 of the NFL season, when the Jaguars largely played zone against Odell Beckham and the Giants even though they have one of the best cornerbacks in the game, Jalen Ramsey, who later wrote in an Instagram story:

To all the “fans” that feel so-called mad you didn’t see enough of “the matchup”, maybe you should be a fan of another sport because football is played 11on11 not 1on1 all game! God bless

Ramsey was asked to sacrifice for a greater good. While it did work out on Sunday, it wouldn’t against a more RPO-heavy offense.

What does work against the RPO? This:

The typical counter to RPOs, particularly in the NFL, is to play man coverage. The RPO is built around creating conflict for defenders on whether to play their run fits or their coverage assignments. The QB then punishes indecision or an aggressive run fit with the quick pass. Man coverage erases that conflict by telling the defenders to stick to their men and dropping a safety down to ensure they still have enough numbers in the box to stop the run.

Man coverage, i.e. the promotion of individual liberty.