The Buccaneers kept pace with the red-hot market for offensive coordinators by hiring University of Kentucky’s Liam Coen on Friday.
It was originally expected that Coen, 38, may remain at Kentucky for the 2024 season but interest rapidly picked up, with rumors of possible connections to the open Boston College head coaching job and other NFL coordinator roles. However, it’s Tampa Bay that lands the Sean McVay disciple, who will get his first opportunity to call plays at the NFL level — Coen served as Rams OC in 2022, working with Baker Mayfield in the process, but McVay retained playcalling duties.
Coen seems to strike a reasonable balance between youthful creativity and veteran wisdom. He has more than 10 years of coaching experience, yet he’s still relatively fresh-faced as a playcaller who’s been praised for keeping up with modern concepts and being a relatable teacher.
And while Mayfield and Coen were complimentary of each other during their brief five-week mingling with the Rams, it will be interesting to see how that relationship develops and gels over an entire season (presuming Mayfield re-signs with the club). It will be more than just elevating Baker, as Coen will also be expected to fill out his offensive staff after several departures and create a stronger run game for the Bucs offense.
To get a better idea of Coen’s philosophy and tendencies, we’ll need to look more into his two stints as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator, where he received more freedom with implementing his own concepts and calling plays. The idea is that he’ll pull from the McVay tree of thinking, which includes names like Shane Waldron and, yes, recently departed Dave Canales.
So in that sense, the Bucs’ roster will likely maintain a good baseline understanding of Coen’s framework from the jump. The differences in terminology, sequencing, and overall implementation will be the key factors that allow for a smooth transition.
One significant difference will likely be the amount of play action passing implemented. In one year under Canales, the Bucs were just middle of the road in the league, finishing 18th in pass attempts off PA (101 throws) and 23rd in passing yards off PA (728 yards). By comparison, the Wildcats under Coen were top 25 nationally in PA percentage in 2023, and they were top 20 in PA efficiency with Will Levis in 2021. To that point, it was with Coen that Levis emerged as a top college passer and possible first-rounder before the former departed and the latter somewhat declined in ‘22.
Liam Coen is back at Kentucky,— coachkou (@coachkou) September 6, 2023
Didn't waste any time getting his play action game going vs Ball State.
Run #1 x on the deep crossing route and #1 strong on the post corner. Freezes the LB and hits the vertical routes. pic.twitter.com/dYUj4wJLM3
One easy-to-read data point that speaks to Coen’s ability is simply looking at Kentucky’s offense during his stints (‘21 and ‘23) vs. ‘22 when he left. The differences are stark.
In the Mark Stoops era, which began in 2013, both of his most efficient offenses at UK came under Coen’s direction. This past season is particularly notable considering the limitations at quarterback, as they still finished No. 12 in points per play (.52) and ranked No. 34 in overall efficiency despite Devin Leary competing a dreadful 56.3% of his passes (last in the SEC) and turning the ball over 14 times in 13 games. A great aid to those numbers was Coen’s ability to dial up explosive plays, as Kentucky led the SEC in plays of 50+ yards with a whopping 11.
Red zone efficiency may be a much-needed improvement over Canales, as the Bucs were bottom 5 in red zone scoring in 2023 — they cashed in for touchdowns in the red zone just 48% of the time. For Kentucky in 2022, Rich Scangarello’s offense scored on only 53% of their red zone opportunities, ranking 106th nationally and last in the SEC. For this season, Coen improved that figure to 69% to rank fourth in the SEC and 23rd nationally.
Motion (both pre- and at-the-snap) and utilizing the full width of the field via lateral and vertical route combos — which are crucial elements to feature in modern offenses — also show up plentifully in Coen pass concepts. By comparison, the Bucs were fairly static last season, ranking 28th in the league at 42.8% total motion percentage and 12.8% at the snap, per ESPN. Conversely, the Miami Dolphins led the entire league at a whopping 82.8% (68.2%). The Rams were at 70.4% (44.1%) under McVay.
Kentucky 21 offense Liam coen 3x1 12 personnel tight bunch runs jet off motion nice design leaves end . gets 2x2 on perimeter. pic.twitter.com/R4vp3S9CIT— coachkou (@coachkou) August 26, 2023
More motion, when executed effectively, can create havoc on the defense as individual players struggle to account for their assignments and/or fail to help cover for others. Stressing the defense and generating easier looks is part of what allows QBs to heighten their games in the McVay/Shanahan systems, and that should hopefully hold true for whomever lines up under center for Tampa in 2024.
Arguably my favorite play-call of the 2021 Liam Coen season at Kentucky.— Drayden Burton (@draydenburton) December 7, 2022
- 3x1 short motion
- Quick Screen to #2 brings defense downhill
- #2 flip to RB
- LBs Out-leveraged… footrace!
Love this creativity. pic.twitter.com/rIPHdjEqWg
Coen has also overseen fairly strong running games, with excellent seasons from both Chris Rodriguez in 2021 (1,379 rushing yards and nine scores) and Ray Davis in 2023 (21 overall TDs, which set a single-season record for the Wildcats). Seven of those scores for Davis were receiving TDs (along with 323 yards on 33 catches), so that focus on involving the running back in the passing game should bode well for Rachaad White, who notched a breakout campaign as a dual-threat back for the Bucs.
Pewter Report’s Josh Queipo (who’s a great film study, by the way) had these initial thoughts on the Kentucky run game:
Most of the run game I've watched so far is out of shotgun, but still a good amount of diversity. IZ, Counter, pin/pull.— Joshua Queipo (@josh_queipo) February 2, 2024
Coen seems to like to get his OL moving a good bit. Bodes well for Wirfs/Goedeke/Mauch/Hainsey. All of them pull and work in space well.
Not to say there aren’t figures that bear scrutinizing as well.
This past year, Kentucky ran 54 plays a game, ranking a dreadful 131st out of 133 teams. They struggled with both sequencing and sustaining long drives, creating true boom-or-bust scenarios on a drive-by-drive basis. The offense stalled on third down frequently, converting less than 38% of the time (75th nationally, 8th in SEC). Having an inaccurate quarterback doesn’t help with this matter, but it’s something that’s worth watching, especially when the Bucs were strong on third down — they finished 9th best at 41.2%, and they were exceptional on third and short.
Ultimately, this feels like a positive hire considering the circumstances. The Buccaneers entered the offensive coordinator sweepstakes late after Canales’s surprise hiring by the Carolina Panthers, and several high-profile names already came off the board before they even started getting serious about the interview process (see candidates like Kellen Moore, Zac Robinson, and Ken Dorsey).
If Coen can coax the offense, at worst, into matching 2023 levels, then you’re still theoretically looking at a division contender. If he can make incremental improvements in regards to motion, explosive plays, and red zone efficiency, then you’re staring at a unit that may operate in the top-half of the league. There are plenty more factors to consider (position coaches, free agent signings, draft picks), but this feels like as good a bet as any.