It’s time to bring the phrase “run-pass option” — “RPO”, for short — into your football vocabulary, if it isn’t already. You should expect to hear it plenty on your television when the Michigan football season kicks off in just over a week.
The essence of an RPO is simple: the offensive line blocks as if it’s a run, the QB then either makes a decision pre-snap or reads the movement of a specific defender to determine whether to hand the ball off, throw a quick pass or even run himself. RPOs have reshaped the way modern football is played and will be a staple of the new-look Michigan offense under Josh Gattis. You’ll also probably hear “RPO” used in the wrong context at times this year. Not every play-action pass out of the shotgun is an RPO. But the name of the game is deception, and no matter the technicalities, you’ll get that in droves this season.
The success of these looks is highly determinant on the ability of the quarterback to make smart, quick-twitch decisions. And there’s every reason to believe Shea Patterson is capable of meeting that challenge. Michigan began to dabble in some RPO and RPO-adjacent looks last year, and with relative efficiency, too. That film offers an informative look into Patterson’s capabilities — and the multi-dimensional threat that might offer Michigan as it leans into a new offense. To the tape!
The first look is a straight give to Higdon — and either a predetermined one or an easy pre-snap decision. It comes four minutes into the game on Michigan’s first drive and helps establish a foundation for future looks. This has some of the ingredients for an RPO: Collins at the bottom of the screen flashes for a screen pass, the offensive line is run-blocking and Patterson keeps his eyes up. It’s likely a zone read, though, with Patterson deciding to keep or hand the ball off. Penn State only has six in the box, Michigan matching with six blockers. Once that hole opens up, the decision becomes far easier, if there was one to begin with.
The result is a big gain, crucial not only for offensive momentum but also for opening more options later in the game.
At this point in the game, the ground game is having its way with the Nittany Lions. Higdon’s already surpassed 100 years and the defense is on its heels. This play, though, appears to be a straight read-option, with Patterson’s focus squarely on No. 34, Shane Simmons — some in football spheres call this the “conflict defender”. Simmons dives, selling out for the handoff to Chris Evans. Patterson keeps and scoots for 11 yards and a first down. When the quarterback is locked in and athletic enough to establish the keeper a viable option, he can make this stuff look easy.
And then, the back-breaker. When the offense can instill some confusion on the defensive end, that’s when it can really wreak havoc. Here, the defense clearly anticipates straight handoff; all 10 defenders in the box take a step forward. Watch No. 51 here, center Cesar Ruiz, as he clears to the second level to find a linebacker to block. He probably has no idea Patterson has thrown the ball to Gentry until the tight end has already scored. Gentry leaks out and from there it’s easy pitch and catch.
When the quarterback has the IQ and ability to read the defense and get the ball out quickly when he sees a good look, that’s when an RPO like this can make a mark. Based on last year’s (limited) sample, and his time at Ole Miss, there’s no reason to believe Patterson lacks in either trait.
Patterson won’t always make the right decision, of course. It’s impossible to expect perfection, and here’s a prime example of that. Michigan State’s No. 96, Jacub Panasiuk, actually plays this pretty well, keeping his eyes on Patterson, then immediately pouncing on Higdon the second he receives the handoff. But if Patterson keeps this, he might still be running.
Ignore *gestures broadly at everything in this clip/game*, and bask, momentarily, in the play design. There’s so much offensive coordinator Josh Gattis can do once his offense has the rhythm of RPO and read-option down — and this play design is a hint at those possibilities.
All the movement gets the defense moving left to right, while Patterson pulls the ball and looks like he’s going to keep. At the last moment, he looks up and drops a dime into Gentry’s hands. Ignoring the result — a catch would have put Michigan ahead and completely changed the trajectory of the game, perhaps — this is but one wrinkle among the unlimited options at Gattis’ disposal.
There are plenty more looks littered throughout games toward the end of the season, but the basic tenants remain. A smart, capable, decisive quarterback is the lynchpin to make this all work. That’s why Michigan is so confident in its ability to execute this new offense right away.
Therein lies the key to the Wolverines maximizing every ounce of Gattis’ offense and, belatedly, entering forcefully into in the modern era of football.