If John Harbaugh follows the same script from his offensive coordinator search last offseason, expect the Ravens coach to conduct an exhaustive and far-reaching hunt for Gary Kubiak's replacement.
But an early leading candidate already has emerged. Adam Gase, the Denver Broncos offensive coordinator, met with Harbaugh on Monday night in Baltimore to discuss the job, confirmed industry sources.
Gase, 36, oversaw a Broncos offense that led the NFL in scoring in 2013 and finished second this past season. He comes with a strong recommendation from Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who called Ravens officials before the 2012 season to talk up his former Indianapolis Colts coach, Jim Caldwell. The Ravens hired Caldwell as their quarterbacks coach, and he ultimately became their offensive coordinator.
Gase has been a hot name in coaching the past two seasons, and he was a finalist for the San Francisco 49ers' head-coaching job that ultimately went to Jim Tomsula last week. Gase also has been a target of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are looking to hire an offensive coordinator.
While Manning and his cadre of pass catchers are given most of the credit for the Broncos' offensive success, Gase's greatest strengths are his ability to create matchup problems and a favorable scheme for whoever his quarterback is.
"He's a bright young offensive coach. Now, considering him for head-coaching jobs might be a little early because of his age, but Peyton Manning swears by him," said former Ravens coach Brian Billick, now an analyst for NFL Network. "It would be interesting if they go with him or stay true to what Gary ran. … I'm sure they've already had those kinds of conversations. Whoever you hire, whether it's John Elway or John Harbaugh, you have to give them the latitude to do what you want to do."
Kubiak was officially announced as the Broncos' new coach Monday, and he signed a four-year contract that reunites him with the organization where he spent two decades as either a player or assistant coach. But the Ravens have been preparing for his departure since late last week, when Kubiak informed Harbaugh of his interest in interviewing for the Broncos' vacancy.
Harbaugh and his staff will spend the week in Arizona coaching one of the Pro Bowl teams, but the search for the team's fourth offensive coordinator in as many seasons already has begun with Gase, who started as a coaching assistant at Louisiana State, where he worked under Nick Saban.
Saban, the current Alabama coach and a former Cleveland Browns assistant, has a strong relationship with Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome.
"Adam has gotten a lot of accolades and earned a lot of respect, and Peyton Manning speaks very highly of him," former Ravens and Browns executive Phil Savage said Monday at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. Savage is the executive director of the Senior Bowl. "… I would think he's going to be in high demand. I would say there would be a lot of interest there, especially with Ozzie Newsome's connections to Nick and the idea that Gase was trained somewhat under Nick."
Harbaugh and the Ravens won't comment on the offensive coordinator search. But sources with knowledge of their plans said Gase and former Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman are among Harbaugh's targets. The fact that Harbaugh interviewed Gase the night before he's bound for Arizona seemingly indicates a sense of urgency with the process.
Seven teams currently have offensive coordinator vacancies, so the competition for the top candidates could be fierce.
"Certainly, Baltimore is last in line, but it's a very attractive job," said former Houston Texans and Washington Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, who is an analyst for NFL Network. "I think anybody who has not signed yet or hasn't made a commitment, I'm sure they are calling Baltimore. Baltimore can jump in and get going, but the question is how quickly can they sift through the candidates?"
Trestman, 59, was fired as Bears coach earlier this month, but he has extensive experience as a play-caller and a reputation for getting the best out of quarterbacks. He also has a calm and cerebral approach, similar to that of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
Like Gase, Trestman has garnered interest elsewhere. Neither candidate has direct ties to Harbaugh. But Kubiak didn't either last offseason, and he helped turn around the Ravens' offense and has to be given some credit for arguably the best season of Flacco's career.
"Well, certainly the continuity at quarterback is critical. It would never be your preference to change offensive coordinators from year-to-year," Billick said. "Joe seems very suited to roll with it and keep going no matter what changes are made. That's one of his qualities. I know he and Gary created a good relationship. I would imagine John would make sure whoever comes in and sets things up will make sure that Joe is comfortable with it.
"It's one of those things where I could see Joe putting his foot down a bit and saying, 'John, I don't care who you bring in, but I don't want to start from scratch with a completely different set of verbiage.' So, that's something they'll work through, and I'm sure John will be mindful of Joe in this process."
Several offensive coordinator options for the Ravens already have been eliminated. Quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison and tight ends coach Brian Pariani are headed to Denver to join Kubiak's staff, according to sources. And sources also said that former Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, a finalist for the Ravens' job last season, will be the Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator, a decision that was reached Sunday.
But there are plenty of other experienced play-callers still available, and Harbaugh proved last year when he interviewed nearly 20 candidates, including a couple from the college level, that he's willing to consider a variety of options.
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Harbaugh will have his choice of familiar faces (Brad Childress, Marty Mornhinweg and Jim Hostler), advocates of the West Coast offense and zone blocking (Greg Knapp) or offensive-minded former head coaches (Trestman, Doug Marrone and Rob Chudzinski).
Whomever Harbaugh hires to run the offense will face the task of trying to keep the offensive momentum going. Under Kubiak last season, the Ravens set single-season franchise records for points and yards, and they rediscovered their running game.
"Kubiak was outstanding," Casserly said. "He has a vision and a plan for his offense, he brought assistants in to help him carry it out, and he is very good at it. When they hired him, it was a great hire. He's one of the best play-callers and play designers in the NFL. It's hard to replace a guy like that."