Explaining the Run-Pass Option (RPO) in the NFL

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 23: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys looks for an open reciever against the Los Angeles Chargers in the second half of a football game at AT&T Stadium on November 23, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 23: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys looks for an open reciever against the Los Angeles Chargers in the second half of a football game at AT&T Stadium on November 23, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images) /

The run-pass option (RPO) is taking the NFL by storm and looks to play major role in the coming season, so let’s take a moment to discuss what it really is…

The run-pass option (RPO) undeniably played a large role in the NFL last year. Not only did it play a part in the regular season, but it was the scheme the Philadelphia Eagles leaned on during their charge through the postseason.

Often confused with the play-action and/or the read-option, the run-pass option is a completely different animal and it’s proved to be extremely effective in exploiting NFL defenses. It victimizes teams that pack the box to stop the run, and it feasts on defensive tendencies and weaknesses.

The best part is, it’s so new to the NFL, defenses are still scrambling to figure out how to best stop it. The RPO may seem like it’s been around the NFL for a while, but it really hasn’t. The reality is, only a handful of teams have tried it in the professional ranks

What is the RPO?

For clarity’s sake, here’s a quick breakdown of the three most confused acts of tricky used by NFL offenses:

  • Read-Option: Popularized by RGIII, the read-option is running play in which the QB decides whether to hand the ball off to his running back or keep the ball himself on a run.
  • The Play Action Pass: A passing play that fakes a handoff before the passer sets up to throw. There is no actual run option involved since it’s a pass play all the way.
  • The Run-Pass Option: The QB has the option to hand the ball off, throw the ball, or even keep it himself.

As you can see, the aptly named “run-pass option” incorporates an element of passing in its trickery. The standard read-option does not. And the play-action has no real option at all since it’s a called pass from the start.

In order to properly execute an RPO all parts of the offense must work together in harmony. And it all starts with the big guys up front.

The Offensive Line

Perhaps the biggest reason the NFL has been so slow to incorporate RPOs in their playbooks is because of the challenges it poses for the offensive line. A proper RPO asks its linemen to play like it’s a run. This means rather than stepping back to pass-protect, they drive forward to run-block.

The only problem with this is if the QB decides to keep the ball and throw it downfield, he must do so before the linemen get more than 1-yard down field because if they do, it would constitute as an “ineligible player downfield” and warrant a penalty.

The reason the linemen play all RPOs like running plays is because the quarterback (who is the decision-maker) doesn’t decide whether to hand it off or keep it until after the ball is snapped and he’s read the defense.

As such, blocking schemes that flow horizontally, like some zone and power blocking schemes, are often a better fit. Flowing to the sideline allows the QB a touch more time to make his read and execute his pass.

Receivers and Running backs

Clearly, the receivers and running backs must be ready for anything. The receivers run their routes like it’s a pass but must be ready to block if it’s a run. The running back must be ready to secure the ball and make his run, but also must be patient enough to let his signal-caller ultimately decide mid-play.

Receivers must also recognize there is no room for improvisation. If the QB decides to throw the ball, he’ll do so in an instant (Remember, he can’t let those linemen get too far down the field). This means receivers must run sudden and precise routes. The passer will be throwing to a spot, so route running is imperative (as is beating the press).

Slant routes and bubble screens are a HUGE part the RPO. There’s no time for double moves here.

The Quarterback

Look at that list of teams above that used the RPO last season and you’ll see a wide variety of QBs with vastly different skill sets and vastly different pedigrees. But the one common denominator is decision-making. The run-pass option only works if the signal-caller is capable of making great decisions in an instant.

The QB will survey the field. He will count defenders in the box, count the defenders below the hard-deck and make a pre-snap “ratio read”. This will tell him where the advantage is from a numbers perspective.

Unless he sees a clear advantage favoring his bubble screen option, he’ll likely then identify his “conflict defender” and let the play unfold. The conflict defender (who usually seems to be either a linebacker or the strong safety) will be the man the QB watches intently after the snap.

Depending on what the conflict defender does after the snap(moves inside, outside, left, right, or even leans in a particular direction) the QB will make his decision based on such action. The video below is great example of Aaron Rodgers calling a bubble screen on one play and reading a conflict defender on another play:


Many of the examples we saw last season only involved the running back running or the quarterback throwing. But the quarterback also has the option of running the ball himself. We typically see this manifest as a run right up the middle. You probably won’t see a player like Aaron Rodgers tuck and run through the A-gap but you sure could see a stoutly built guy like Dak Prescott charge up the middle on a keeper.

With the QB also potentially running the rock, it adds yet another “option” to the already loaded run-pass option. It’s these options that punish defenses for their indecision (and their over-pursuit) and place extra burdens on the second level defenders (linebackers).

Since the RPO is still in its NFL infancy, there is still much innovation yet to be seen. The Eagles innovated as the postseason progressed last year when they started faking the RPO, dropping their linemen back into pass-protection, and throwing downfield on double moves.

Defenses thought they saw RPO and repeatedly bit on the short routes (since they assumed the linemen were run-blocking which would make double-moves impossible). But the linemen didn’t go downfield, rather they jumped back into pass-protection, making the downfield pass more possible.

While linemen playing pass-protection is technically not an RPO, it’s still a spin-off option idea which was made possible by the success of the RPO.

Next: Understanding the Defensive Line Techniques

The RPO is just getting started in the NFL. It doesn’t require an athletic quarterback or even a particularly strong-armed quarterback. It requires next-level decision-making from it’s QB. Get ready to see a ton of this in 2018 and beyond.