The run-pass option (RPO) play has become increasingly popular in modern football, both in the college and professional ranks. The RPO allows the quarterback to make a split-second decision based on the movements of the defense, either handing off the ball to a running back or throwing a pass to a receiver. But where did this play come from, and how did it become so popular?
The roots of the RPO can be traced back to the early 2000s, when Rich Rodriguez was the offensive coordinator at West Virginia University. Rodriguez had already made a name for himself as the originator of the zone read, a play that involved the quarterback reading the defense and either keeping the ball or handing it off to a running back. The success of the zone read led Rodriguez to experiment with new variations of the play, including the RPO.
The basic idea behind the RPO is to give the quarterback multiple options on each play, forcing the defense to account for both the run and the pass. The play starts out like a traditional run play, with the quarterback taking the snap and faking a handoff to the running back. However, instead of simply running the ball, the quarterback has the option to throw a quick pass to a receiver who is running a short route. The decision about whether to hand off the ball or throw the pass is made based on the movements of the defense, with the quarterback reading the defenders and making a split-second decision.
While the RPO may seem like a simple concept, it requires a high degree of coordination between the quarterback and the rest of the offense. The quarterback must be able to read the defense quickly and accurately, while the receivers must be able to run precise routes and make themselves available for the quick pass. The running back, meanwhile, must be able to sell the fake handoff and be prepared to take the ball if the quarterback decides to keep it.
Despite its complexity, the RPO proved to be highly effective for Rodriguez’s West Virginia team. The Mountaineers’ offense became one of the most potent in college football, with quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton leading the way. The RPO allowed Rodriguez to keep the defense off balance, constantly forcing them to make split-second decisions and leaving them vulnerable to big plays.
West Virginia’s success with the RPO did not go unnoticed, and other teams began to take notice of the play. Soon, it was being used by teams at all levels of the game, from high school to the NFL. In the NFL, the RPO has been particularly popular with mobile quarterbacks like Kyler Murray, Carson Wentz, and Lamar Jackson, who are able to make quick decisions and use their athleticism to gain yards on the ground.
The RPO revolution caused evolution on defense
The rise of the RPO can also be attributed to changes in defensive strategy. As offenses have become more sophisticated, defenses have had to adapt, using smaller, quicker “hybrid” players who are better suited to stopping the pass than the run.
The hybrid linebacker is a fast and aggressive player and could play inside linebacker, yet physical enough to play defensive line. In the 5’10-6’ and 185-200 pound range, this is a player who can stay on the field and effectively match the different formations that the offense may throw at the defense. Many high school teams struggle to find defensive linemen, especially if they desire to be two platoons. The hybrid linebacker allows for flexibility in the defensive structure.
While the hybrid defender can still be targeted with the RPO, his athleticism can allow him to slow play the play as the quarterback makes his decision on whether to run or pass, making the read “cloudy” and creating more opportunity for mistakes by the offense.
In 2022, TCU utilized this strategy behind a 3-3-5 defense that was full of hybrid players. While they fell short, the defense allowed them to get just enough stops on it’s way to the College Football Championship game.
For Some Teams RPO is the Offense
The Wake Forest RPO offense is one of innovation in an era of parody. Head Coach Dave Clawson and Offensive Coordinator Warren Ruggerio revamped their offense by basing it on the RPO. The results can be seen in looking at what the production was pre-RPO and after the switch was made. The results of the change were dramatic as seen below:
Their slow mesh and downfield reads make this an offense that must be defended differently.
Explosive plays help the Deacons put points on the board quickly. One way they do that is with RPO with Routes Behind, which Coach Clawson points out that in some ways replaces play action. He illustrates these plays in this video:
The RPO has its critics
Despite its success, the RPO is not without its critics. Some argue that the play is too risky, exposing quarterbacks to unnecessary hits and increasing the likelihood of injury. North Alabama Head Coach Brent Dearmon, who has used RPO extensively throughout his career makes identifying the “hot gap” essential in every RPO he designs.
As Dearmon explains, “You can’t serve two masters.” In other words, each player can only be responsible for one gap.
With this understanding, the QB can avoid being hit while executing a Gap Scheme RPO. It gives the offense a sound approach to using the gap scheme with RPO. Coach Dearmon explains it in this video:
That’s a helpful coaching point that allows an offense to remain sound with the Gap Scheme as a run in the RPO as well as protecting the quarterback.
Others argue that it is too easy to defend, particularly at the NFL level, where defenses are more sophisticated and better equipped to stop the run. Still others argue that the play is not conducive to long-term success, as it relies too heavily on the quarterback’s athleticism and does not allow for sustained success through the air.
Despite these criticisms, the RPO remains a popular and effective play in football. It has become a staple of the modern game, used by teams at all levels to gain