In 2010, Pat Kirwin wrote the book Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look. In 2015, he put out version 2.0. For years while watching a football game I would watch the offensive line. If a guard pulled I could predict it would be a run, or if a tackle’s helmet would pop up before he backed into protection I could predict pass before the quarterback took his second step.
Obviously since the invention of pass-run options and run-pass options, reading the offensive line has become moot during most college football and NFL games. After years of taking my eye off the football, I’m putting it back onto the ball and more specifically the quarterback, in 2019.
Run-Pass Options or RPO’s
On an RPO, the offensive line is going to run block. Regardless of what anyone else tells you, the line is one-hundred-percent full on run blocking. The only caveat any line is told is that on downfield RPO’s (maybe a dig or post)- they shouldn’t proceed to the 2nd level (linebackers) and just to let those linebackers come to them.
If you’re watching the offensive line and you see power ran in front of you, but the quarterback pulls and throws you’re already seconds behind the action and are going to miss important stalk blocks, flat defender play, and more importantly- the game within the game.
Stick-Draw is one of my favorite pass-run options. It’s a PRO instead of an RPO because the first read is to throw the football. Above, the quarterback is looking to throw the stick route to the H (in blue). If the linebacker blitzes or drops deep the quarterback hits the H on the stick. If the linebacker sits on the H, the quarterback will run the football on a quarterback draw.
Of course, there’s also PRO’s like swing-dart and swing-power. I’ve written about dart and swing-dart for SOTU in the past (click here), so we won’t go into crazy detail. But Alabama loved swing-dart with Jalen Hurts and even a little with Tua Tagovailoa. Dan Enos was up close and personal with the play while in Tuscaloosa and I’m really hoping both dart and swing-dart become staples of the Coach Enos offense at Miami.
A pass-run option throws off the viewer’s eyes because we’re expecting a throw and the quarterback takes off. You can’t trust linemen in a kick-slide or receivers in routes in 2019.
Watching the quarterback
So with RPO’s and PRO’s, as well as the typical play-action passes... what are you supposed to watch during a football game this fall? I would recommend getting your eyes back on the quarterback. However, while QB’s are more trustworthy than linemen, you have to have a discerning eye with them as well.
The difference for a quarterback between runs, play-action passes, RPO’s, PRO’s, and a typical drop back is going to be in their hands. A zone read mesh and hand placement and an RPO aren’t going to look drastically different. The football is going to be in the running back’s gut and the QB’s eyes will be the tell- whether he’s looking at a defensive lineman or a flat defender.
When a quarterback is going to straight drop back their hands will be at their chest with the football (image below).
When a quarterback has a legitimate call to hand the football off his hands are going to be out and knees bent. In the image below, the quarterback is running an RPO. His hands are down for a quarterback-running back mesh but his eyes are on the flat defender. That’s the tell between an RPO and a straight handoff.
In the image below, the quarterback has his arms extended for the mesh, but his eyes are on the handoff as opposed to a flat defender. This is the sign of a true handoff and not an RPO. It’s not a play-action pass, either, because the running back has the football in his gut as opposed to some space between the ball and the ball carrier.
Our quarterback had a pretty solid play-action fake, but you can see the difference when you examine the screenshots at the same time. In the RPO and handoff he has the ball in the running back’s gut and extends his arms with elbows more locked. On the play-action pass he’s going to keep the ball closer to his body, with bent elbows, and not let the back touch the football.
Watching the quarterback instead of the ball, or the offensive line, is going to be a fun practice for me in 2019. But you can’t just watch him- you have to use deliberate practice (Angela Duckworth term from Grit) while watching. Focus on the quarterback’s hands and ball placement and track the outcome. It’s what the New England Patriots coaches called “padding” a game.
This will make a ton of sense regardless of who is at QB for Miami in 2019, but it’ll be even more fun if it’s Tate Martell in the shotgun mixing in RPO’s, PRO’s, read options and play-action passes.