Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland gave his players a homework assignment this spring.
He asked them to pretend they were NFL defensive coordinators and to come up with a strategy for effectively defending the run-pass option plays (RPOs) that were so effective for the Eagles' offense last season on the way to the franchise's first NFL title in 57 years.
"I said, 'You're the defensive coordinator playing us and I want you to come up with one defensive scheme that will hurt this part of our game,' '' Stoutland said.
"It's been interesting. We've got some really smart players, and it's been interesting to hear some of the theories. We're not done yet. We're still collecting those thoughts. But we're just trying to stay ahead of the curve and be ready for what we might see.''
Stoutland gave his linemen this chore because he and head coach Doug Pederson know that the league's actual defensive coordinators, particularly those employed by teams on the Eagles' 2018 schedule, burned the midnight oil this offseason trying to come up with a plan to stop those confounding RPOs.
"This league is filled with smart coaches,'' center Jason Kelce said. "There are guys, especially the Patriots, that are going to be trying to figure all this stuff out. They've watched every bit of film. They're checking to see what other people tried. They're checking to see what people in the college ranks are doing to stop it.
"[RPOs] are going to be something that I think you're going to see a big emphasis on this year. Not just us. More and more teams are going to start doing this stuff. So defensive coordinators know they have to figure out a way to slow it down.''
A league of copycats
In the NFL, there are very few original ideas. Everybody shamelessly steals from everybody else.
RPOs have been a staple of college offenses for years. Chip Kelly used them at the University of Oregon and brought them to the Eagles in 2013. Kelly's predecessor, Andy Reid, saw the success Kelly had with them and started incorporating them into his offense in Kansas City, where Pederson was his offensive coordinator.
They became a significant part of the Eagles' offense in the second half of last season, and now, if form holds, RPOs are about to become more popular than a Meghan Markle ensemble.
A quick refresher: RPOs are plays in which the quarterback has the option of handing the ball to the running back or throwing it, depending on the defensive alignment and how the defensive end and linebacker react. The QB also can keep it himself and run, but as Nick Foles proved both in 2013 with Kelly and again last year after replacing Carson Wentz, the ability to execute that last part isn't mandatory. RPOs differ from the read-option plays of several seasons ago, as the RPOs include a passing option.
"It's a very effective play,'' Eagles linebackers coach Ken Flajole said. "But there are some ways you can combat it. It's just like everything else.
"It's like with the quarterback read-option a few years ago. It took a year or so, but defenses eventually found a way [to defend it], and you don't see it used much anymore.
"Defenses will have a better plan for that stuff this year. And they'll have a better plan in 2019 than they had in 2018 as they study it more and understand where the stress points are on it.''
While defensive coaches spent the offseason trying to figure out how to stop the run-pass option that baffled so many teams last season, including the great Bill Belichick's Super Bowl-losing Patriots, the Eagles were busy coming up with a plan for countering what defenses might do.
"It's a constant chess match with all that stuff,'' quarterback Carson Wentz said.
"We just have to keep evolving and stay ahead of them,'' Foles said. "Defenses are going to come up with some stuff. They're going to scheme us. They're going to get us a couple of times. This is football in the NFL. But we're always looking to tweak things, always studying our tendencies and theirs.''
"We can't expect to go out there and run the same plays [as last year] and have the same success,'' tight end Zach Ertz said, "because defensive coordinators have had seven months to figure out ways to stop us. By the same token, we've had seven months to come up with some new things.''
Pederson and the offense will get some help from defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and his coaches, who need to come up with their own plan for defending RPOs this season.
"There are some things that, once we get the pads on in training camp, that we're going to work on against our own defense, because some of the things we saw from our defense this spring are what we're going to be seeing during the season,'' Pederson said. "So this is really going to be a good test for us as an offensive staff to start putting our thinking caps on and come up with a plan to sort of counteract what we're going to see.''
The Eagles will hold their first full-squad training camp workout Thursday morning at the NovaCare Complex. They open the preseason Aug. 9 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Boosting the run game
Besides Schwartz's brain, Pederson also has plucked some new RPO ideas from the college game. He and the rest of his coaching staff watched a lot of college film before the draft. A good many of the players and teams they studied used RPOs. He also picked the brains of many of the college coaches who stopped by the NovaCare Complex this spring for a visit.
"We watch so much [college] film when we're preparing for the draft that we get some ideas from them,'' Pederson said. "Their formations are a little bit more unique than ours, and we can't do some of the things they do formationally, but we can still apply some of the same techniques.
"It's a whole can of worms that I think the league is beginning to see with it, and we're going to keep exploring new thoughts and new ideas, especially when we get to camp.''
RPOs are basically an extension of the take-what-the-defense-gives-you philosophy. While the success the Eagles had throwing the ball on run-pass options last season received a good deal of attention, RPOs are primarily designed to help the run game.
"We want to do everything we can to run the football, and adding that element of the quarterback being able to read that defender essentially adds another blocker,'' quarterbacks coach Press Taylor said. "As the box count starts to get heavy and our quarterback starts reading, he's essentially blocking, and we even the numbers back out. For us, that's an advantage in the run game. That's where we want to be.''
That advantage showed itself in a big way in Super Bowl LII against the Patriots. Yes, Foles, the Super Bowl MVP, threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns. Yes, he was 11-for-14 for 169 yards and two TDs on third down.
But the Eagles also rushed for 164 yards (6.1 yards per carry) against a New England defense that just two weeks earlier had held the Jacksonville Jaguars and their No. 1-ranked rushing attack to 101 yards and 3.2 yards per carry in the AFC Championship Game.
"In this offense, we do so much off the same" looks, Stoutland said. "If you're playing linebacker, you're really looking at the same play, but it's not. It could be a play-action pass, or it could be a run, or it could be a run-pass option. And you're sitting there trying to figure out how to defend that.''