What is a Read Option Play in Football?

what is a read option in football

During a High School, College Football, or NFL game, you might hear the announcers mention a read-option play. The read-option play is when the quarterback studies the defensive players at the line of scrimmage and determines whether to have the running back run a traditional route, fake a handoff to them, or pass the ball to someone else. Here is the complete breakdown of the option offense play and more in this blog post.


Similar Terms

  • QB Wrap
  • QB Choice
  • Zone Read Option


How Does the Read Option Play Work in Football?

Image the offensive team is in a shotgun formation with a running back next to the quarterback. The quarterback scans the defense and notices that the defense team is ready for an outside run. During the snap, the offensive wide receiver or tight end might back into a zone defense, and the quarterback can hand the ball to the running back to run. That block by the wide receiver or tight end can allow a successful inside zone run for the offense since the defense was preparing for an outside run.


Taking the same scenario above, the quarterback notices that the defense team moves inside the line before a snap. Seeing that the middle of the line of scrimmage will be tough to execute the running play, the quarterback can run the read-option play. Once the center hikes the ball to QB, they fake the handoff to the runner and then run the ball themselves to the outside.


In that example above, the QB was able to gain a few yards on the run from the misdirection they gave to the defense. Since the play looked like a traditional running play, the defense followed the running back instead of the quarterback. That one or two-second realization that the running back did not have the ball can generate a first down or more for the offensive team via a QB run.


What Does RPO Mean in Football?

what does rpo mean in football

An RPO (run-pass option) adds a pass to the mix of the traditional read option. The RPO spread offense works best with a quarterback with a strong throwing arm and excellent speed skills. Simply put, the QB can hand the ball to a running back, run it themselves, or pass the ball on a play, which makes it difficult to stop.


RPO Examples

Just like a read option, the play begins with the QB scanning the field. In this example, let’s say that the QB looks over to their target wide receiver and sees their defender playing a bit back to protect against a pass. Completing a pass to them might be tricky, so the QB will instead opt for a run by the running back to take advantage of the defense playing back.


If the defender is playing to stop a run or blitz, the QB can pass the ball to that receiver. You might see the QB target them on a pass since the defender will leave the wide receiver open for a second via crashing towards the QB and running back.


What is a Lateral Option Play in Football?

what is a lateral option play in football

The lateral pass is a play where the QB and running back are running together on a play. The running back runs slightly behind the QB to allow the QB to pass the ball to them at the last second to drive going. However, the QB can also fake lateral a pass and keep running the ball themselves if the defense is anticipating this play.



The lateral option play works best when you have a mobile quarterback and a fast running back. The play is prevalent for getting a touchdown on the goal line because the QB can either run the ball himself or toss it over to the running back to score. Since there isn’t much room to defend near the goal-line, sometimes teams have to pick and choose who they will guard when this play begins.


Why Does a Read Option Play Happen More in High School and College Football?

Why Does a Read Option Play Happen More in High School and College Football

You will see the read-option play occur more often in High School and College Football games than in the NFL. The primary reason is that NFL teams want to limit their QB’s from getting hit by the defense team since they usually have the highest salary. Since an NFL QB is generally better at throwing and reading defenses than running, coaches in the NFL don’t run this sequence.


NFL defensive players can quickly move and read plays, unlike college football players. By saying that, you might see talented college football players who run this play struggle when joining the NFL. Most notably, Tim Tebow, a Heisman winner, could not compete at the NFL level because the defense was too good at stopping this trick play, and he was an average throwing QB at best.


However, some players who ran option plays in college had success in the NFL after adapting to the league’s defense. Some famous players include Cam Newton, Vince Young, and Colin Kaepernick. Those three players would use more play-action plays to gain yards via a run than a traditional read play.


What is the Difference Between a Read Option and Play Action Play?

what is the difference between a read option and a play action play

The primary difference between a read option and a play-action is that a play-action will result in a fake handoff no matter what. The head coach or offensive coach might call a play-action play, while a read-option is more on the QB scanning the defense before a snap.


Here is the Breakdown of a Traditional Play-Action Play

  • QB fakes a handoff with one hand to the running back. From there, the QB can run upfield or pass the ball to an open player.
  • Running back/ fullback crashes to the line of scrimmage pretending to have the ball to confuse the defense. A running back, fullback, or QB run is a triple-option play.
  • The offensive line crashes the defensive line to hold them back on a run play but will stay close to the line of scrimmage to protect the QB via a pass. The blocking scheme looks like a block for the running back, but it covers the QB instead.
  • The wide receiver break for their traditional play route to anticipate a pass


Here is a Breakdown of a Read Play

  • QB scans the field to see how the defense is playing and where they might be heading on a play. The QB can then hand the ball off to the running back, fake a handoff, or run/pass it themselves.
  • Running back/fullback will crash forward for their traditional running route. A running back, fullback, or QB run is a triple-option play.
  • The offensive lineman will block for a traditional run play.
  • The wide receivers will block the defensive player in front of them for a traditional read-option. You might see the wide receiver act as the lead blocker if they run. If the play has the pass option, the wide receivers will break for their usual route.


When Did the Read Option Play Enter the League?

In the 1970s, you saw more college football teams incorporate the read-option play into their playbook. Since then, some college football teams design their offense plays around reading options, while others do not.


Conclusion: What is the Read Option in Football

In summary, the read option is in the playbook for many teams that begin with the quarterback scanning the defense. The QB can either run the ball themselves via a fake handoff, give the ball to the running back to run, or pass to an open target. Their analysis comes from seeing a gap in the defense and exploiting it.


Finally, you will see an option play occur more in High School and College Football than in the NFL. The main reason is that NFL passers generally have the highest team salary, so teams want to protect them. One way to protect them is to reduce how many chances they can run during a game. You expose the QB to a tackle from the defense by running on a play, resulting in a potential injury.


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