Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak speaks about Peyton Manning and his team's preparation to open the season against the Ravens on Sunday. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun)
The specter of former Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, whose second stint as an NFL head coach begins Sunday with the Denver Broncos against his old team, is one the Ravens are trying to respect, but not fear.
There's no animus, at least outwardly, between the one-year-and-done offensive coordinator and a Ravens franchise that he helped to franchise-record offensive numbers.
When asked if it was a grudge match, Ravens coach John Harbaugh wouldn't even use the word in shooting down that notion. The analogy he used to describe preparing to face a former colleague was far more fitting.
"You chase ghosts," Harbaugh said, "but you realize that ghosts are real."
Ravens coaches and players warmly remembered Kubiak Wednesday in the lead-up to the season opener against the Broncos. Quarterback Joe Flacco said he had a "great relationship" with Kubiak, and will make it a point to have a friendly exchange with him before Sunday's game. Kubiak spoke glowingly of the Ravens on a conference call with Baltimore media, and even wished well the staff at his favorite Owings Mills restaurant, Mezcal.
The Week 1 matchup, though, puts into focus the benefits reaped from Kubiak's 357 days with the Ravens, and the impact he still has on the team.
In 2014, he oversaw an offensive resurgence that produced a Pro Bowl running back — Justin Forsett — out of a ground game that a year earlier managed the fewest yards-per-carry in the NFL. His West Coast system also helped Flacco reach career highs in yards (3,986) and touchdowns (27).
Kubiak took plenty with him, too.
"I learned a great deal," he said. "First off, the coaching staff there is extremely experienced. They're a great group of guys and I know for me, personally, it was just a blessing to be around those guys last year and be a part of it.
"The organization, I've said many times, they're so consistent in what they've done. For me to watch John and [general manager] Ozzie [Newsome] go about business every day, from all aspects — not just the coaching part, but the draft part, the offseason, [was] very impressive. I'm a better football coach and a better person from having the chance to work with that group."
His success in Baltimore came on the heels of a messy demise with the Houston Texans, where he coached for eight seasons but left with the NFL's worst record in 2013. He was barely out of football for a month before Harbaugh hired him.
Whether he would have become a head coach so quickly if not for the opportunity in Denver, or the success he enjoyed in Baltimore, is difficult to distinguish.
Kubiak was a candidate for several openings, including with the New York Jets and Chicago Bears, when old friend John Elway came calling.
Elway, the Broncos executive vice president and general manager, played with and for Kubiak in Denver, so no one outwardly begrudged Kubiak for leaving a week later.
"I remember he said [Denver] was a perfect fit for him, and I don't see anything wrong with that," wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. said.
The Ravens players and coaches on Wednesday showed the proper amount of respect for what Kubiak did here, but none ascribed more significance to this particular matchup than they'd give any other season opener.
Forsett played for Kubiak in Houston in 2012, and acknowledged that he wouldn't have landed in Baltimore two springs ago were it not for him. But the game wasn't circled on his or any other Ravens' calendar for any other reason than it was the first meaningful game since January.
"It's Game 1 for us," fullback Kyle Jusczcyk said. "It doesn't necessarily matter that we're going against coach Kubiak and other guys that we're familiar with. They're all just nameless, faceless opponents for us."
Kubiak's presence won't be used as motivation in the locker room before the game Sunday, but his year in Baltimore left a lasting impression. He insists he sees plenty of new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman's tendencies and background in the Ravens offense now, but Flacco, Smith, and others on offense still consider the scheme very similar to what worked so well under Kubiak.
Both Harbaugh and Kubiak say that familiarity is "overrated." To hear them tell it, there won't be any more strategizing for each other than normal, neither for personal pride nor the pleasure of topping a former colleague.
"It never even would have come to mind, really, for this game [to be a grudge match]," Harbaugh said. "It's a football game against a coaching staff we respect, obviously, and a group of players that we respect very much. It's a very talented football team that they've put together. … It's a big challenge for us, but it's an AFC opportunity. It's an opportunity to go out there in an opener and win a game on a road that people don't expect you to win. So, that's going to be our goal, just like every week."