When the Patriots selected Mac Jones in the first round of the 2021 draft, they committed to building an offense around their new quarterback.
After a successful rookie season, Jones is now transitioning with a new coaching staff after former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels's departure. The transition period has naturally led to some growing pains, but it's also allowed Jones to take more ownership of the offense.
Among the various things that the Patriots quarterback stressed he wanted to install heading into his second season were run-pass options, a staple of the offense he ran at Alabama.
"Other teams were doing them around the league and having good production. Every offense has its core plays, and you don't necessarily want your RPOs to be your core plays, which they are not. But it's always good to have that extra flavor in there. We just have to keep growing from there and learn how to do them."
"I think it puts stress on the defense. I definitely learned in college just watching coach Saban sometimes explode at practice. He's trying to tell someone to do something, but his guy is running a route, but it's also run, or is it a pass? So there is a lot of cool grey area there from an offensive perspective," Jones told reporters on Wednesday.
In the first two games of the season, the Patriots have been in a shotgun formation on 64 of their 71 passing plays, which doesn't seem like it's by accident. At Alabama, Jones only attempted 11 passes in his career from under center.
With a shotgun-heavy offense, the next logical addition is to start calling more run-pass options, or RPOs. Based on the numbers, shotgun play-action has less of an impact on defenses than play-action while under center. As a result, offenses, especially in college, needed to make the run fake more impactful since they lived primarily in the shotgun at the collegiate level.
The counter for offenses were run-pass options, where receivers run routes while the blockers and running back approach the play like it's a typical rushing attempt. Then, the quarterback holds the ball at the mesh point and reads out the defense with the option to either hand the ball off to the running back or throw the ball to a receiver depending on the defense's movements.
Going back to his Alabama days, Jones had the third-highest rate of his passes come off RPO schemes in the 2021 quarterback class (19%). Furthermore, in his final season with the Crimson Tide, Jones lit up defenses with these schemes: 73-of-78, 890 yards, ten touchdowns, and zero interceptions for a near-perfect passer rating of 153.8.
Despite overwhelming success with run-pass options in college, the Patriots only ran 15 RPOs during Jones's rookie season. For comparison, the Eagles and former Alabama teammate Jalen Hurts led the NFL with 147 RPO plays.
Although the run-pass options weren't featured in the Patriots offense in the season-opener against Miami, there will be more of them this season.
In New England's 17-14 victory over the Steelers last week, the Pats ran five RPO concepts that mostly converted to runs. For example, the Pats moved the chains on a third down play in the third quarter with an RPO handoff to running back Rhamondre Stevenson.
On the play, the Pats ran an RPO draw with a bubble screen attached for wide receiver Jakobi Meyers on the perimeter. With the Steelers emptying the box to put three defenders over the bubble screen, Jones hands the ball off to Stevenson, who does the rest. If Pittsburgh kept the numbers in the box and the Pats had three-on-two for Meyers, Mac would've thrown the screen.
As the Patriots quarterback mentioned, run-pass options aren't necessarily going to be core plays for the offense. Still, they ran a third of their season total from a year ago in one game.
These are not the gimmicky schemes that only work in college, as some think. The NFL's best offenses, such as the Bills and Chiefs, are among the league leaders in RPO frequency each season.
If the New England offense continues to rely heavily on shotgun formations, one would expect that the Patriots will continue to mix in RPOs as a way to keep the defense off-balance.
With the success that Jones had with them in college, why would you not?