what does rpo mean in football

Understanding What RPO Mean In Football

If there is one buzzword in football, then it’s the term RPO. From social media to TVs, you’ll hear the word being used regularly. In most cases, people don’t really know what it means.

So, what is RPO in football? RPO is an abbreviation that means Run-Pass-Option. It’s a common play widely used by teams to beat the defense. The play involves a quarterback passing the ball to a running back or a wide receiver. The offensive back will fake a run play forcing the defense to play the pass or run defense.

Simply put, RPO allows the quarterback to pass to a running or wide receiver. It’s more like tricking the defense and putting them off balance. 

This is a misdirection play. Looking to learn more about the RPO?

Continue reading below.

What Is an RPO in Football?

RPO in football means Run-Pass-Option. It’s a kind of play where the quarterback chooses the kind of play to run.

This is a kind of play taken out of the shotgun formation. It’s common with most spread offenses. The quarterback is usually located 5-7 yards in the backfield. He then has a running back a few yards to the right or left.

As the play goes, running is the first thing that happens. The offensive team will line up as if it’s a running play. This faking prompt the defense to move forward.

It’s a play that looks pretty simple but one that must be executed carefully. The offensive line should not move far too forward should the quarterback decide to pass, as this can result in a penalty.

Running backs also consider the play as a run, rushing at full speed to the quarterback and stretching arms as if to receive the ball.

Once the ball is snapped, wide receivers will also run quick short routes like slants, screens, and quick ins and outs.

As the ball is snapped, the quarterback sends the ball into a running back. He will position the ball for a handoff but will have a choice of handing or passing to a wide receiver.

In essence, it’s the quarterback who calls the play. Depending on the movement of the defense, he will hand it off to a running back or pass it to a wide receiver.

With all these happening, the safeties and linebackers remain in their positions. The assumption is that the offense has more numbers and can easily match the run play.

Who Invented The RPO in Football

The invention of the RPO is accredited to Alex Smith while playing for Utah. According to former Utah head coach Urban Meyer, Alex Smith was the inventor the run-pass option accidentally while playing the spread offense in college.

During a Fox News interview, Meyer named Alex as the inventor. He did that when discussing the run-pass option. He played for Utah from 2002 to 2004, throwing over 5,200 yards and scoring 47 touchdowns.

He would go on and enter the NFL in 2005 as the first selection for the 49ers. He currently plays for the Washington Redskins recovering from a broken leg.

How To Know Run Pass Option

Looking to know more about a run-pass option? The quarterback runs the play. The decision on the play to run is based on the single movement made by a defender, usually a linebacker or safety.

american football defense after ball pass

This is the defender the quarterback is reading. If the defender drops back into coverage or stays put, the quarterback hands the ball off to a running back. However, if the defender comes to defend, the quarterback will throw a pass to a wide receiver.

From the example above, one play is a run, while the other is a pass. But how do you tell that as a fan in the stands? Below are a few pointers to let you know a run-pass option in football.

The Offensive Line

Look keenly and see how aggressive the offensive line is immediately after a snap. You’ll know it’s an RPO when the offensive line goes forward and blocks downfield as if they are running a block, but the play ends with a quarterback passing the ball.

If the offensive line strictly blocks, you’ll notice the linemen drop further as opposed to moving forward. In such cases, the offensive tackles give away. Looking for these signs in the offensive line can tell you of an RPO.

The Receivers

When the quarterback hands the ball off, you can know an RPO by keenly looking at the receivers. Most wide receivers will run routes when the quarterback is playing a run-pass option.

So be sure to check if the receivers are running routes or blocking for the running back. If they are blocking for the running back, then it’s not an RPO.

The Quarterback

Lastly, looking at the quarterback, you can know if a play is an RPO. However, knowing if play is an RPO from a quarterback is a little difficult. This is because the quarterback always acts as if he is reading the defense.

However, you can still get a few cues to let you know if play is an RPO. If it’s an RPO, the receivers will run routes, and the line will be run-blocking, while the quarterbacks will have eyes on a single defender. But as you can see, you will need to read more than the quarterback to know if the play is an RPO. 

If you only focus on the quarterback and the other events don’t happen, then you’re likely looking at a regular play. Even commentators get it wrong sometimes, calling normal plays RPOs.

How Does the Quarterback Choose Which Play to Run

But how do quarterbacks choose which play to run? This is important as it’s the quarterback who chooses the play.

To have a clear understanding of how a quarterback makes his decisions, let’s see the two types of plays.

Pre-Snap Run Pass Option

In a pre-snap RPO, the quarterback chooses the play before the ball is snapped.

The quarterback decides on the play by keenly looking at how the defense is aligned. 

For example, take an offense running a triple formation. With three receivers, the defense will have defensive linemen against the receivers. The quarterback will make the decision to pass or run by reading the movement made by the defense.

The quarterback will hand off the ball when there are more defenders or throw a pass when there are fewer defenders facing the triple receivers.

passing the football in training

Simply put, the quarterback makes the decision to play by looking at the defense numbers. Are they in favor of the play or not? If the numbers are even, the quarterback will decide to play depending on the game situation.

Post-Snap Run Pass Option

In a post-snap RPO, the quarterback makes the decision after the ball is snapped.

The decision the quarterback makes is based on the action of one or two players. The focus is on the strong safety or middle linebacker.

The quarterback will throw a pass if any of these players make a forward move towards the line of scrimmage, just after the ball is snapped.

However, if any of these key players stays put or moves back, the quarterback will hand off the ball for a run play.

What is the reasoning behind this?

This is because space is created in the backfield for a pass when the key players move forward. However, when the key players stay put or move back, there is space for a running play.

As you can see, the RPO takes advantage of mistakes in the defense. It’s a beautiful play and one you’ll enjoy watching.

What Are The RPO Plays

If you still want a deep understanding of RPO, then you need to check and understand the different RPO plays.

Below are the main RPO plays to know.

Leverage-Based RPO

First is the leverage-based RPO. Leverage RPO works by having the quarterback look for areas where they have leverage against the opponent’s defense and use it.

This happens when the quarterback analyzes the defense and matches the defense and offense numbers. The quarterback will decide whether to pass or hand off based on the numbers and the game situation. He will also make the decision on the right receiver to pass to

Overall, the quarterback’s decision is based on the reading of the defense and what leverage his team holds against the defense. The decision-making is based on the leverage the offense has against the defense.

Movement-Based RPO

A movement-based RPO is more of a post-snap RPO where the quarterback makes the decision based on the movement of a key defender. This can be a safety or a middle linebacker.

In most cases, the quarterback can combine a pre-snap read and a post-snap movement read to decide on the play. However, it’s never a good option.

Numbers-Based RPO

Lastly, we have the number-based RPO, where the decision of RPO play is made based on the numbers in the box. 

The box is an area of the field where the linebackers and defensive linemen line up.

player passing the ball to his teammate

Initially, the play is a run with the defenders in the box capable of handling it. At the pre-snap, the quarterback looks at the number of defenders in the box and compares it with the offense. He will then make a decision whether to hand off or throw the ball.

Overall, it’s a simple case of analyzing the number of defenders versus the offense in the box. 

Even in scenarios where the numbers are even, the quarterback can decide on the play by reading the game situation.

Which NFL Team Run The Most RPO

The Dolphins are the NFL team with the most RPO. They lead with up to 78 RPO pulls and are slightly followed by the Chiefs.

RPO plays are more common in the NFL. Reports show they are effective and more teams need to open more RPO packages.

What’s The Difference Between RPO, Play Action, and Read Option

The difference between RPO and Play Action is that the lineman blocks while the quarterback fakes a run in play action. The quarterback reads the linebacker to hand off or throw in an RPO.

How Run/Pass Options (RPOs) Work Differently in College Than in the NFL

The run/pass options (RPOs) work differently in college than in the NFL. In college, forward passes beyond the scrimmage line are illegal if the offensive linemen are three yards downfield.

In the NFL, the lineman should be 1 yard downfield to have a flag with the rule having a big impact.


The RPO is a common offense play that you’ll often hear in mainstream football. It’s a common play that stands for run-pass option, where the quarterback decides between a run or pass play.

The play was very common in high school and college. However, teams in higher leagues like the NFL have realized the immense benefits and widely use it nowadays.

This is a pretty deceptive play and one that’s tough on the defense as they don’t know what to expect. The play keeps defenses guessing, making it hard for them to plan and counter. Overall, if you want a clear understanding of football, then the RPO is one play you must know.

Read Also: What does ATH mean in football? Discover more about this football abbreviation by reading this article.

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