Some of Ravens' optimism for next season leaves with Gary Kubiak

The Ravens look like contenders for next year, but their optimism took a hit with Gary Kubiak's departure.

As the New England Patriots celebrated and then walked off the field after trouncing the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night in the AFC championship game, there were just a few "what if?" moments.

What if the Ravens had one shutdown cornerback? What if the Ravens had just one Pro Bowl free safety? If they had either and one could make a play or two, they might be playing the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.

Regardless, with the nucleus the Ravens have returning, it was reasonable to believe they would be top contenders next year.

Then, news came out Sunday night that Gary Kubiak was definitely leaving to become Denver Broncos coach, and now some optimism has subsided. It's hard to replace a coordinator like Kubiak, who had the greatest offensive mind in Baltimore since Ted Marchibroda.

It's even harder when the cupboard is bare. A year ago when the Ravens were looking for a coordinator, there was a wish list that included candidates like Norv Turner, Scott Linehan, Kyle Shanahan and even Kubiak.

And now the go-to list includes former Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman and Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Trestman has impressive credentials and is well respected around the league. He is quiet, unassuming and cerebral, much like Kubiak. If the Ravens could sign him, that would be a great hire.

Gase's best work has been in Denver, where he has been an assistant since 2009, but what's his offense? Is it his or whatever quarterback Peyton Manning wanted?

There is bound to be some whiz kid out there waiting for an opportunity, another Kubiak, but it's hard to find them. That's why his loss is so significant to the Ravens. He made a lot out of a little.

It wasn't just him, but his system. He turned a nomad like Justin Forsett into a 1,000-yard rusher. The Ravens scored a franchise-record 409 points with a No. 2 tight end in Owen Daniels and a veteran in Steve Smith who can no longer be classified as a legitimate No. 1 receiver.

The Ravens flourished because Kubiak's version of the West Coast offense was predicated on a physical running game that used stretch plays and play-action passes. The Ravens were successful because quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison, a former offensive line assistant, overhauled the blocking scheme the team used in 2013, and implemented Kubiak's.

And now both Kubiak and Dennison, as well as tight ends coach Brian Pariani, are off to Denver.

Poor Joe Flacco. The Ravens quarterback, about to enter his eighth season, will be working with his fourth offensive coordinator in the last four years. His relationship with Kubiak seemed stronger than those he built with Cam Cameron or Jim Caldwell.

Not only did he have a career-best 3,986 passing yards and 27 touchdowns in 2014, but Kubiak got Flacco to interact more on the sidelines with him and the players. Flacco had solid relationships with both Cameron and Caldwell, but he seemed to respect Kubiak and former quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn more because they both were former NFL quarterbacks.

But now, Flacco has to establish a new relationship and study another playbook. The new coordinator will have his own terminology and a different way to attack. Other offensive players will have to forge new relationships as well, and all of this takes time.

It took Kubiak almost to midseason to figure out Flacco's strengths, and how to keep things so simple that the quarterback made the right decisions.

The problem is that no one knows for sure if a new chemistry will work. Kubiak was quiet and confident, but he never gave the impression that he was looking over coach John Harbaugh's shoulder or about to stab him in the back.

If any other team besides the Broncos had called, Kubiak probably would still be in Baltimore. But he was a backup quarterback for nine years in Denver and then later coached there for 11 more seasons.

He spent most of that time either backing up or coaching John Elway, the Broncos' current general manager. They've always had a great friendship.

As for the Ravens, they have a big hole to fill. The advice here is for general manager Ozzie Newsome to actively participate in the search like he did a year ago. No offense to Harbaugh, but he hasn't been great in hiring assistant coaches.

Harbaugh was forced into hiring Kubiak, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions in team history. Fans in Baltimore finally saw a real offense, one that was well developed and schemed.

Unfortunately, it lasted only a year. With Kubiak leaving, some of the optimism and excitement about next season goes with him.

There is a lot of time for all of it to resurface, but finding a guy to replace Kubiak is going to be hard. He was a rare find in Baltimore.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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