No evolution has taken up more attention this decade than the run/pass option, a favorite of some college teams for nearly a decade and now Super Bowl champions, too.
An RPO in the NFL is different than an RPO in college. But there’s hardly a coach anywhere who hasn’t had his job fundamentally changed by these plays, either because he calls them or has to stop them.
The emergence has been so dizzying that its origin can get lost. But understanding how RPOs got to this point is the way to get a clue about where they’re going.
So I talked with coaches across the country who were part of this evolution. How’d we get here, and what’s next?
In football, tracing anything to one moment is difficult. Coaches recall seeing their first RPOs at different times.
Hal Mumme, former Kentucky head coach
[In 1997 at Kentucky], we couldn’t block Jevon Kearse, and so we told Tim Couch to either throw a bubble screen or hand the ball off. It was so easy to do. I don’t know why we didn’t keep doing it.
Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee head coach
We were doing it but didn’t know we were doing it, probably in [the 1990s]. Woody Dantzler was our quarterback at Clemson. [Rich Rodriguez was the offensive coordinator.] We weren’t coaching it with the terminology “RPOs,” all that, but we’d call a hitch with a draw, and if they’d dropped outta there, we ran quarterback draws. The guy we were reading, if he stepped up, then we threw the hitch.
Pat Narduzzi, Pitt head coach, former Michigan State defensive coordinator
Probably the first guy we started seeing RPOs from was really Rich Rodriguez, when he was at Michigan [in the late 2000s, when Narduzzi was at Michigan State].
Seth Littrell, North Texas head coach, former Arizona/Indiana OC
At Indiana, in 2012 and ‘13, we started doing some of the more RPO, down the field, post routes, and all that stuff, which started through Rich Rodriguez. I think they did a lot of it back when he was at West Virginia, Michigan, and all of that, with their guy [Denard Robinson] at Michigan.
Sonny Dykes, SMU head coach, former HC and OC at various schools
In 2009, Nick Foles became our quarterback [at Arizona]. We ran a lot of power. We started running power out of the gun, and then what Nick started doing was basically, we would run vertical routes over the top of the power, and he would put the ball in the belly of the [running back], and if the linebacker stepped up to play the run, he would dump the ball on what we called the pop pass.
And so it kinda started for us at least with that. And then I got to Louisiana Tech, and our first year there, we started messing with it a little bit.
The next year, we met over the summer. My thing was, “Why don’t we do this with all of our passes, basically, or all of our runs? Why don’t we attach a pass to all of our base run plays, read somebody, tell our linemen to be slower to get down the field, heavier on double teams, and basically make the linebacker or safety or whomever wrong all the time?”
In 2009, when Dykes was Arizona’s offensive coordinator, the running backs/tight ends coach was current North Texas coach Littrell.
When I started doing it was back at Arizona. It was more the runs with the screen game RPOs — bubbles and the kind of quick screens and reading apex backers and all that stuff.
We kind of got into it a little bit at Indiana, and then when I started getting big in it was [in 2014] at North Carolina with Marquise Williams, we did a bunch of it. That was more reading conflict players [the defender the offense is reading], safeties, your apex backers, and all that.
We were a very heavy RPO team in 2011 [at Louisiana Tech]. I hadn’t seen anybody else really doing it much. The film we got at the end of the year on people, all of a sudden, they started doing it.
Normally it’s about a two-year progression in college football, where somebody does something that’s pretty unique and different, and normally it takes two years before people start to copy it. Well, in this case, it seemed like it took two games.
Some time in the early 2010s, RPOs went mainstream. Offenses sought two things: confusion (for the defense) and simplicity (for the quarterback).
Kyle Whittingham, Utah head coach and former defensive coordinator
They make it very difficult on a defense. That’s the primary reason. You get mileage out of it, and it really puts stress on the linebackers, in my estimation.
Old-school linebackers, when you read run, you come flying downhill and smack the guard, or the fullback leading through, or whatever the case may be, but you’ve gotta get downhill right away.
But now, with the RPOs, it makes a linebacker a little bit hesitant, because it puts him on egg shells and makes him a little bit indecisive. I think that’s really the most difficult thing for a defense, is the indecisiveness.
If you’re in a quarters defense and that safety’s a run-fit player, and he’s sitting 10, 11 yards off the line [to the near sideline], and you run run-action at him and he moves down, you can’t block him, unless you’re gonna dig him out with receivers, and then you’re gonna [leave] a corner free. The defense is gonna have the numbers.
For me, the RPO game came in to where, now, we’re reading that safety, and if he wants to fit the run off the run-action, now we can throw it in behind him. It just slows him down a little bit, gives you a little bit better numbers in the box with the run game.
Scottie Montgomery, former ECU head coach
You’re trying to make sure that you don’t have a bad play call and not put every single thing on the quarterback, and just let the play and the scheme work for you. I think that’s why people like it: the options that come with it, the ability to make sure that no matter what, you’re gonna have an opportunity to make a play somewhere.
If they load the box, you can get the ball to the perimeter. If they wanna play the perimeter, you can still have your inside game connected to the ability to run the football with the quarterback. And there’s just a lot of options, without making the quarterback this super-cerebral player.
Brennan Marion, William & Mary offensive coordinator
If you’re at a Wisconsin, you can call it over the loudspeaker, we say. “Any play I wanna call run-wise, it’s gonna work, because our linemen are bigger and stronger.”
With us, not having guys that are bigger and stronger, being a former high school coach, you have to find ways to get explosive plays.
Dan Casey, head coach, St. David’s School (Raleigh, North Carolina)
High school coaches are so dependent on personnel. So if you have an offense that — you just don’t have any offensive linemen — you have to find a way to move the football, apart from just handing it off to your running back and running straight downhill. And so I think these coaches have basically out of necessity developed some of these offenses, because they just don’t have the personnel to run traditional offensive sets.
And once they realize that you get all these crazy good athletes in the SEC, and you’re running these same offenses in the SEC, it still works, and so people are starting to be believers.
You may run into a defensive box that’s not favorable, but at least you’re not getting sacked or throwing an interception. That’s why RPOs are so good, is because, theoretically, you have your answer right there: “If I’m not really sure, I’ll just hand the ball off.”
I’ve had some younger quarterbacks on my teams, and with a traditional drop back, you’re asking them to identify a coverage. You’re asking them to make maybe a secondary or a third read. And that’s actually really difficult for a young quarterback to do.
With the RPO stuff, it’s like, “All right, dude. Look at the Mike backer. If the Mike backer steps up, you throw the slant behind him. And if the Mike backer drops, you hand it off to the running back.” And so it’s literally simplified it so much for my quarterback that he almost doesn’t even have to think.
I would say 85 to 90% of the runs we called [at Penn State, in 2016-17] had a second phase or a tag. Rarely do we just call a run and just hand it off without having the quarterback read somebody at the first, second, or third level.
The proliferation required defenses to change, and offenses to counter with their own adjustments.
Man coverage, in my estimation, that’s one of the better tactics defensively against RPOs. You’ve got a guy assigned. Whoever the potential receiver is in the RPO, you’ve got a guy that’s responsible to cover him man-to-man, and it’s not a zone concept where you’re gonna pattern-match, which is more gray area. Man is more definitive and allows you to be more decisive in what you’re doing.
You get an inside receiver, and you get that run action in the RPO, and the linebacker comes flying up, and the inside guy runs a slant, and as a linebacker, you’re responsible for the slant area, and you’ve come downhill to play the run. You’re in no man’s land there. If you’ve got a safety or a nickelback, whoever you’ve got assigned to cover that guy, then that alleviates the linebacker’s responsibility.
When you’re putting a [deep safety] in the middle of the field, you’re one man short if they’re running, if they have the threat of the run or the RPO. Any time you’re in man free with a guy in the middle of the field or cover 3 with a guy in the middle of the field, that’s like now it’s only 10 guys on defense. Does that make sense? So you have your safety not playing in the middle of the field, playing down and on a guy.
If an offense is running RPOs, and an offense is running option, and you’re playing with a guy in the middle of the field, you’re really screwed.
With Denard Robinson, every year, Michigan would come into the Michigan State game being ranked, and the quarterback was gonna be a Heisman Trophy candidate. And then every time they came out of the Michigan State game, it was all over, because they couldn’t run the ball. We didn’t put a guy in the middle of the field.
Some of them just roll in different coverages, trying to get the reads different. You know, [making the offense wonder,] “Who’s the conflict player?” Trying to disguise it better.
When Jared Goff was at Cal, for a little while, they were cutting the D-end loose, not blocking him, but reading him, so Goff had to get rid of the ball so fast. I think some teams started looking at that and saying, “Maybe we don’t want our quarterback to take a shot like that.”
So instead of letting the defensive end come, they would block the defensive end and read the linebacker. It’s less risk for the quarterback. And then teams were like, “Wait. So, we can get a bigger chunk play if a team’s rolling a safety to the middle of the field. We’ll throw it right behind him.” And so they’re like, “Well, let’s read the safety now.”
Sonny Dykes, Goff’s coach at Cal
When we played people like USC, they had really great defensive backs. Our thing was, you’ve gotta be careful here, because if their answer’s more man and their guys are better than your guys, the last thing in the world you want a defense to do is play more man. It just makes it harder to have your screen game, so that was kinda the thing that we started talking about was, “Look, the RPOs are nice, but that’s creating a big disadvantage for our offense in a lot of ways, because the answer becomes man.”
Now if you’re playing somebody that you have better players than, you want ‘em to run man against you, ‘cause your guys can beat their guys. But if you’re playing SC, if you’re Cal, and your receivers aren’t half as good as their defensive backs, you want ‘em to play zone. You want ‘em to give you some easy throws. You want your receivers to get free access into routes and stuff.
We had to kinda manage that a little bit and say, “Look, let’s scale back the RPOs to help the other part of our offense.”
It comes down to, “Well, are they better than you?” If they’re better than you, you can change it up and still get beat.
Now, defenses have to read offenses from every level.
It’s called “read good. Don’t mess it up.” Every week, we’re gonna try to give the defensive players a read, have ‘em look at somebody or a couple people that are gonna tell ‘em what’s going on.
And to me, it’s all in the read and teaching the kids the read, doing it over and over and over during the week, showing them video tape of what it looks like. “[Which player on the offense] is lying to me, and who is telling me the truth?” That’s what it comes down to. We don’t wanna be lied to. We’re trying to find out who will tell us the truth as a read.
Is it reading an offensive lineman? Is it reading a quarterback? Is it reading a tailback? So there’s different things that we’ll change up weekly based on what we’re seeing, what we think we’re seeing, or what they think they’re gonna see.
It’s hard, ‘cause you can get an absolute run read with the low-hat offensive linemen, and they’re upfield, and they’re working at the next level, and then all of a sudden the quarterback stands up and throws a football, and you’ve just gotta be able to diagnose that.
You can’t come downhill as quickly as we used to be able to do. It’s tough. Like I said, that’s why they do it.
Defenses are a little bit slower to react with their nickel guys, their outside linebackers, guys that are in space, their safeties. A few years ago, you stuck the ball out there for a zone read, a zone look, those safeties and linebackers were flying down, and then you pulled it and you were throwing behind ‘em.
Safety may be the most difficult position to play in the game, because you have to be a four-tool player. You have to be able to run; you have to have speed. You have to be able to cover. You have to be able to tackle. And you have to be able to get into a run fit.
They have to formation-adjust. They have to know the run fit. They’ve gotta be able to disguise things. They’ve gotta be able to communicate adjustments. Then they have to be able to cover inside receivers. When you start looking at all the stuff that guy has to do, there’s just not many guys that can do that.
I think that shift has gone from linebackers to safeties: “Hey, look, this better be my smartest guy, my fastest guy, my toughest guy, or we’re gonna have problems.”
Offenses have countered more involved defenses by using RPOs, trusting that eventually, they’ll get a chance to play iso ball.
[The RPO] is a way to take the onus off of the play-caller to be in the correct play and turn the quarterback into a point guard where he has the different options. We can run pick and roll three straight times, and one time I get a lay-up, one time a three-pointer, one time a dribble drive to the basket.
I think it helps the quarterback when he’s not locked into one thing. We talk about our quarterback being a point guard of the offense. If he sees something and you have an RPO attached, then he can always get you a plus play instead of a negative play.
We stood back as a staff and said, “OK, what direction is college football going?” Well, the majority of schools are trying to use the width of the field and the pace of the game as an equalizer, almost like in basketball, when a team used to slow it down when they played good teams. They said, “Instead of there being X number of possessions, they’re better than us, so we want 25% less, so they can’t be better than us more than they are.”
We’re talking about finding one-on-ones. Find your best matchups. If people wanna play man, depending on what you have out there, do you have a mismatch where you can attack and all that? Now, the run/pass options are pretty easy to see. But you have different routes for different man concepts. If they start playing man-to-man — I’ve seen a lot more man here over the last couple years than I have in previous years — now you’re trying to find your one-on-one matchups.
At Arizona, we had Rob Gronkowski. Rob is a pretty special talent. And so what we did is we built a whole offense around Rob, where Rob could line up as a tight end, Rob could flex out, Rob could play outside, where you could get a faster guy on a safety, but now you have Rob on a corner. That’s kinda what we did. I think the next wave is creating personnel matchups that are non-traditional.
Do RPOs make that easier by holding physical defenders closer to the line?
Yeah. I think that’s where all this is headed.
I’m just trying to find the one-on-one matchup for my receiver with the most green grass possible, and other than that, I’m really just trying to run the football.
Offense is is either the ability to create space by formation and attack the space, or it is to use your one to beat their one. What they are essentially doing by having the defense defend a run play and a pass play at the same time is really putting the onus on the fact that you’ve gotta have guys who can cover.
Whatever coverage you wanna be playing in, if they’ve got a running play and three guys are going out for a pass, it’s pretty simple. You’ve gotta have a guy covering all those guys, and pretty soon on defense, you run out of guys. At some point, there’s gonna be a one-on-one.
When your quarterback’s a threat as a runner, it just puts that much more pressure on your defenses. So I think you’ll continue to see offenses evolve, running the option out of the gun, out of the shotgun, and trying to find ways to isolate players in space, whether it’s in the throwing game or running the football. That’s what the NFL is. You see that more and more in college.
I think it always comes from high school, just because you have more opportunity to create.
It’s just really seeing something with people that run it with less personnel, and then an NFL coach sees it, or an FBS coach sees it, and goes, “OK, I can run that with the guys I got. I got better players.”
Rule-makers could push RPOs in one direction or another, but nobody knows where the plays will go next.
If the NCAA says to linemen, “You can only go a yard downfield or two yards,” instead of [the current] three, then that definitely changes things, because now RPO’s won’t be as effective. But if the rules don’t change and linemen are still allowed to get a certain distance up the field, which makes it tough on the backers, then I think the RPOs are here to stay.
I think the rule has always been there. I think the problem is, basically, it hasn’t been officiated. You know what I mean? You can look at play after play after play after play after play on film where guys are more than three yards down the field [before the pass].
What’ll happen is somebody will do a good job of publicizing the fact that guys are down the field, and they’ll basically go lobby the officials and the people making rules, and then they’ll send out a deal that says, “This is gonna be a point of emphasis for us in officiating, calling this.”
And they’ll call it and call it and call it for a couple of weeks, and then Week 3, Week 4, Week 5, you look up and guys are seven, eight yards downfield like they always have been.
You’ll start to see it more from under-center elements, maybe pass-first and then run-second play, where you got a whole full pass concept going, and then running back draw.
It’s gone from lining up in the wishbone and playing with two or three tight ends to now playing with three and four wideouts, and things go in circles, so who knows?
We may be back there lining up in the wing-T or lining up in the wishbone offense and starting to pound people, because everybody’s spread out. Eventually, that gets shut down, then they’ve gotta go to something else and make people rediscover who they are.
[When I played at Oklahoma], Bob Stoops came in. He brought Mike Leach, so we threw the ball around (after years of running the wishbone and winning titles). We got Josh Heupel and kind of transitioned into the spread game, and ever since then, it’s kind of taken off.
I don’t think the fans really care what scheme teams run. I think they care more about wining football games and the successes. At Oklahoma, it’s about winning championships.
I think it’s relative to where you’re at, but at the same time, I think if you told North Texas fans that we’re gonna go to the triple option and we’re gonna win championships every year, they’d probably be very happy.