Try this idea on for size: Marshal Yanda is one of the greatest players in Ravens history.
An offensive guard? Really? Yeah, really.
Let's start the case with Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak on the stand. Kubiak has coached and played with his share of excellent offensive linemen. Already, he'd put Yanda near the top of the list.
"Yes, I've told John [Harbaugh] that," Kubiak says. "He's as good as any I've ever been around, and I've been around some great ones. I'm so impressed with the technician that he is, how hard he plays, how tough he is, the things he plays through. He's a consistent body of work."
All right, how about the view of a pretty smart rookie looking for NFL role models?
"He's the type of guy where, when I'm watching film, I watch what he does on every single play," Ravens guard John Urschel says. "That's how good he is. … Listen, if I end up being like Marshal Yanda in four or five years, I'll be more than happy with my career. That guy's the real deal."
You want outside views? Yanda's peers voted him the league's 55th best player in the NFL Network's annual preseason poll. He was the second-ranked offensive lineman and one of only two guards to make the list at all.
The analysts at Pro Football Focus grade every play of every game, and by their reckoning, Yanda has been a top-10 player at his position — guard or tackle — in five of the six seasons he's started more than half his team's games. Last year, playing with a shoulder still weakened from rotator cuff surgery, he graded as the NFL's 15th-best guard.
"He's definitely one of the best linemen in the league," says Steve Palazzolo, a senior analyst for Pro Football Focus. "He can play the power game and maul people but then you see some of the reach blocks he makes, and he moves awfully quickly over a short space."
The entire Ravens line suffered through a disappointing 2013. But now that Yanda, 30, is healthy again, he's playing arguably the best football of his career in his eighth season. Pro Football Focus says the gap between him and the next best guard, the Cleveland Browns' Joel Bitonio, is greater than the gap between Bitonio and the 10th best player at the position. ESPN analyst Jon Gruden gushed over the holes Yanda and Kelechi Osemele opened for Justin Forsett in the Ravens' Monday night victory in New Orleans.
'Always finishing to the whistle'
OK, enough with the accolades. What says Yanda to the notion he's an all-time great Raven, behind only former teammate Jonathan Ogden among all the franchise's offensive linemen?
It's Friday afternoon before the New Orleans trip and he's still flushed and sweaty from practice. He starts with a self-deprecating snort. He's trying to humor the question but with the Saints looming in three days, he can't go there.
"It's tough, because I'm a team guy, and I don't worry about that stuff," Yanda says. "If I'm worried about that stuff, then I'm not worried about what's most important, which is blocking New Orleans. If you get in that mindset, you're going to take steps backward. You can go from the top to the bottom in a half. Not a game, not a year. In a half."
And there you have it, an athlete who's great in part because he never stops to think about how great he is. Yes, it's easy to fall into cliché when discussing Yanda, the unbreakable Iowa farm boy who achieves beyond his physical gifts and hates talking about himself as anything more than a classic football grunt.
You read stories about him from over the years and toughness is the common theme. The most widely repeated episode is the $600 bet he won as a rookie when he took two jolts from a stun gun wielded by disbelieving Ravens veterans. "Easiest money I ever made," he said at the time, noting he'd taken worse shocks brushing against the electrified cattle fences on his family's dairy farm.
Others marvel at the way he played through the Ravens' 2013 Super Bowl run with that torn rotator cuff, which required surgery five days after the last snap of the season. "Who does that?" asks Kirk Ferentz, Yanda's college coach at Iowa and also a former Ravens line coach.
But these stories circulate often enough and they become almost cute, which doesn't fit Yanda's self-conception. He's not interested in being a folk hero. He's simply devoted to pushing through whatever he must to be a great offensive lineman week after week, year after year. Consistent is his favorite word.
Look at his His Pro Football Focus game grades and they're almost numbing — positive scores for weeks on end. Positive for both run and pass blocking. Positive whether he was playing at guard or right tackle, a position he manned earlier in his career.
It speaks to a man whose mind remains locked on football every day during the season. No leaving the game at the office for Yanda. He believes such paranoia is warranted for a job that can subject him to public mockery if he screws up two plays out of 60.
Every practice, he does his best not to loaf, lest he set a poor example for younger teammates. Every night, he plays with his children, 4-year-old Graham and 2-year-old Elizabeth, then settles in to watch film. Every play, he looks for another opponent to hit until the referee's whistle blows the action dead.
Want to know why Yanda is so often in the middle of on-field shoving and yapping? "I think guys get into it with him, because he's always finishing to the whistle," says Ravens center Gino Gradkowski. "He might get under guys' skins always doing that."
'He'll be out there'
Pain is part of the routine, something to be accepted as the price for doing what Yanda loves. "You have to understand it's not if you're going to get hurt, it's when," he says matter of factly.
Yanda had never been injured in high school or college. "I thought I was just different," he says, mocking his youthful outlook. But then he blew out his knee five games into his second pro season.
Since then, some part of him has hurt pretty much all the time.
"But you'll never know, never hear about [it]," says rookie tackle James Hurst. "If there's any way that guy can be out there, he'll be out there."
Guard is actually the perfect position for Yanda's stoic personality. He can do his job better than anyone in the world, receive handsome pay ($32 million over five years) and universal respect from his peers and still face less public attention than your average back-up quarterback.
He wasn't always this picture of professionalism. Growing up in Anamosa, a town of 5,500 in Eastern Iowa, Yanda let his grades slip to the point he had to attend junior college instead of pursuing a four-year scholarship. With that jolt of reality and numerous kicks in the rear from his strict mother, Ruth Byrd, he shaped up and set his sights on the Big Ten.
Ferentz remembers Yanda hanging around Iowa's facilities "like a dog who won't leave your porch."
The coach didn't like using roster spots on junior college players, whom he regarded as poor risks. And he half-regretted giving Yanda a shot when he saw how stiff the kid looked in summer workouts. "He wasn't very impressive," Ferentz recalls. "And that's being kind."
This would become a theme for Yanda, who's the opposite of a workout warrior. At the NFL scouting combine, he'd impress virtually no one with a 40-yard dash time of 5.15 seconds and 23 repetitions in the 225-pound bench press.
Even now, Yanda hardly stands out in an NFL locker room. He neither towers over his teammates, as Ogden did, nor ripples with muscle like Terrell Suggs, who dresses a few lockers down. He's just another beefy guy with ruddy features.
But once Yanda donned his pads, Ferentz watched him transform into a different animal, one who'd hit anything that moved and hard.
"During his senior year, I told all the pro guys, 'Look, your coaches are going to hate him when they see him running around in shorts, but once they see him play actual football, they'll come back and thank you for drafting him,'" Ferentz says.
'He always finds a way'
The Ravens saw exactly what Ferentz promised, picking Yanda in the third round in 2007 despite having already drafted another guard, Ben Grubbs, in the first round.
As a rookie, Yanda got his one chance to play with Ogden, a future Hall of Famer whom he'd heard all about from Ferentz. He observed Ogden's intelligence in team meetings and the great tackle's competitive meanness on Sunday. But study as he might, Yanda would never be 6-foot-9 with dancer's feet and arms as long as javelins.
"I couldn't do anything he could do," Yanda says with an awed laugh.
It was an important lesson. He had to know his own strengths — diligence and a thirst for contact — and play to them.
"He's definitely a scrapper, a guy who will get it done no matter how he has to do it," Gradkowski says. "I think he would pride himself on that. It doesn't always look pretty, but he always finds a way to get it done."
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Now Yanda's the guy studied by younger players. He's made three Pro Bowls with a fourth seemingly inevitable this year. And he's a quiet cornerstone of one of the league's most consistent winners.
"I knew he was a good player when I came here," Kubiak says. "But man, is he impressive — not only as a player, too, but as a person, how he goes about getting ready to play."
Yanda has some notions about his post-playing career. He and his wife of three years, Shannon, are expecting their third child in February. They plan to retire to their native Iowa, probably to a farm. Yanda says he'll shed some of his 305-pound playing weight to reduce strain on his joints.
But those visions seem as far away as the post-career awards — Ravens Ring of Honor, even the Hall of Fame ballot — he doesn't care to discuss.
There's a game coming Sunday, and Yanda has to get ready.