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Galina: The NFL's RPO revolution is here

Miami Dolphins running back Myles Gaskin (37) takes a handoff from Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) against the Los Angeles Rams at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, November 1, 2020. (ALLEN EYESTONE / THE PALM BEACH POST)

Slowly, we creep toward inevitability. Soon every first-down run will have an RPO attached to it, and every talking head and boomer football guy will shake their fist and complain about millennials ruining the game. The RPO train is on the tracks, but it does seem like the NFL is leaving too much meat on the bone in terms of the specific RPOs they are using.

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RPO rates have climbed every year since 2016, checking in at 9.81% in 2021 — 1.2 percentage points up from 2020. To see a clearer picture, we must look at both early-down RPO rates and the prevalence of shotgun on early downs. RPOs are generally run from the shotgun and on downs where defenses expect a mixed attack.

First-Down Shotgun + RPO Rates in NFL | 2016 – 2021
Season RPO Rate Shotgun Rate Shotgun-RPO Rate
2021 11.39% 50.17% 17.28%
2020 9.96% 50.49% 14.83%
2019 9.32% 48% 15.15%
2018 9.42% 49.1% 14.21%
2017 7.62% 42.77% 11.68%
2016 4.7% 47.42% 6.97%

We see the numbers spike a bit in 2021, with just under one-fifth of first-down plays in shotgun being an RPO. Forty-three percent of all runs that were handed off from shotgun in 2021 had an RPO attached. Now we are getting somewhere.

Last offseason, I wrote about how teams should be using RPOs more. Specifically, downfield RPOs:

“But we can also see efficiency rise when the ball is thrown, as non-RPO pass plays average 0.064 EPA per play, while passes thrown off RPOs average 0.110 EPA per play.

“We can screw down further and look at screens as a proxy for pre- and post-snap RPOs: Screen passes off RPOs averaged -0.081 EPA per play while non-screen RPOs averaged 0.201 EPA per play. This presents one of the next steps NFL offenses need to take to build more efficient offenses.”

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