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Five Things We Learned from Marshal Yanda’s career with the Ravens

From his stature as an inner-circle Ravens great to his quiet retirement at the peak of his powers, here are five things we learned from the career of Marshal Yanda.

Yanda deserves to go down as an inner-circle Ravens great.

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A guard, even the best guard in football, is rarely going to have the first name or face you associate with a successful NFL franchise. Fewer than 20 modern-era guards have made the Pro Football Hall of Fame, even if you count those who also played tackle and center.

And no one embraced the essence of guard-dom more readily than Marshal Yanda.

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The Iowa native could be one of the funniest, most insightful people in the Ravens locker room. But most of the time, he steered into sports clichés worthy of that scene in “Bull Durham” where Crash Davis schools Nuke LaLoosh on the fine art of media handling. Sometimes, before one of his podium sessions, he’d flash a wry smile at longtime Ravens writers and say something like: “I’m really going to light it up today.”

Of course, he never did. On some deep level, Yanda believed those bland words about putting the team before yourself and just trying to do the best job possible, one day at a time. He piled up good days for 13 years, through injuries and quarterback changes, through lost seasons and glorious ones.

No one much noticed at first; Yanda didn’t make his first Pro Bowl until his fifth season. But recognition did come eventually. After the initial Pro Bowl in 2011, he never missed another, except in 2017, when he played just two games because he fractured his ankle. He won fans in the national football media, who noticed his alertness, mastery of technique and rare quickness in the cramped warfare that is NFL line play. Promising rookies such as Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. looked up to Yanda, much as he’d once viewed Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden with hushed reverence.

As last season wound on, with the Ravens winning at an unprecedented rate and Yanda playing at his customary elite level, whispers intensified that the great guard was preparing to call it quits, no matter how the year ended. Surely, he knew how he was leaning and could have elegized his career as some other Ravens greats did when they came to the end. But the Yanda we encountered at his last podium session, on New Year’s Eve, was the same one we’d encountered many times before. In fact, he laughed when asked if he’d ever stage a grand retirement announcement.

“Yes, it’s never been about me,” he said. “Like I said, I've always been ... I feel fortunate to be a part of this organization, to be drafted here, and the type of success we've had in all the games that I've been able to be a part of. I'm just taking it one day at a time. The most important thing is our next opponent. The retirement stuff — we’ll wait until we're done playing, assess that stuff when that comes. But right now, it’s about playing football at a high level and getting after it.”

Actually, in his way, Yanda delivered the perfect epitaph for his career with those 96 words.

It’s difficult to rank the greatest players in the history of an NFL franchise. Their jobs, and the contexts in which they perform, differ so greatly. Yanda could never be the face of the Ravens, like his former teammate Ray Lewis. He could not win Super Bowl MVP like his pal, Joe Flacco, or deliver the quote of the week like his locker room neighbor, Terrell Suggs, or seize the city’s imagination like his last quarterback, Lamar Jackson. But he did his job — violent, essential, anonymous — as well any of them.

Ravens' Marshal Yanda celebrates on the sideline with less than two minutes in the game. The Ravens defeated the Texans by score of 41 to 7 at M & T Bank Stadium Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam
Ravens' Marshal Yanda celebrates on the sideline with less than two minutes in the game. The Ravens defeated the Texans by score of 41 to 7 at M & T Bank Stadium Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam (Kenneth K. Lam)

For all the wonderful tales of Yanda’s toughness, don’t forget his adaptability.

The anecdote was destined to live on in 13 years’ worth of profiles. Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister brought a Taser to the locker room and offered $500 to any teammate who’d take a jolt. The pot grew as one hardened NFL veteran after another thought better of the dare. Until Yanda, then a modestly paid rookie, seized the Taser and zapped himself in the chest. Some observers questioned whether he’d given himself a full shot. So Yanda casually picked up the Taser and zapped himself again.

The cash and an enduring reputation as the toughest dude in the room were all his. “Easiest $600 I ever made,” he said later.

Yanda would renew his toughness bona fides over and over, playing the Super Bowl with a torn rotator cuff and going nose to nose with some of the strongest men in professional sports during post-snap scuffles. He often said there was no use in fretting over injuries, because he knew they would come.

But Yanda was far more than a brute with 99th-percentile pain tolerance. He used his mind and technical expertise to work around injuries that would have sidelined others. This was never more evident than when he injured his left shoulder in the fifth game of the 2016 season. He missed three of the next four games, and a trip to the injured-reserve list loomed. Until Yanda suggested to Ravens coach John Harbaugh that perhaps, he could switch to left guard. He’d never really played there in 10 seasons, but he figured he could protect his injured wing from the unfamiliar side. Harbaugh agreed to the experiment, and of course, Yanda resumed his Pro Bowl level like nothing had ever happened.

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“The ability to do what he did, the willingness to do it and then to be able to pull it off, it’s pretty remarkable,” Harbaugh said at the time.

Yanda also shifted out to right tackle, his college position, at various points in his career, again without a drop in performance. Though he loved the interior combat, he pass blocked like a tackle, conceding ground when it was tactically prudent.

So yes, the taser story will live on. But don’t allow the legend to obscure the craftsman at the center of it.

Baltimore,Maryland--1/6/19-- Ravens' #73 Marshal Yanda blocks Chargers #31 Adrian Phillips in the third quarter. Baltimore Ravens vs. Los Angeles Chargers. NFL Wild Card playoff game. Lloyd Fox,Baltimore Sun Staff--DSC_1211.JPG
Baltimore,Maryland--1/6/19-- Ravens' #73 Marshal Yanda blocks Chargers #31 Adrian Phillips in the third quarter. Baltimore Ravens vs. Los Angeles Chargers. NFL Wild Card playoff game. Lloyd Fox,Baltimore Sun Staff--DSC_1211.JPG (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

No one in the locker room commanded more respect than Yanda.

An interesting trend developed last season as safety Earl Thomas III acclimated to his new team after nine years in Seattle. With his intense gaze and sculpted back muscles, Thomas cast off an intimidating aura. By his own admission, he did not feel entirely comfortable at first. Yet he routinely talked shop with Yanda, who sat on the other side of a prominent corner in the Ravens’ locker room. They came from different places and performed very different duties on the field, but they found some affinity as two pros who’d been through the wars.

Yanda had earned such respect from almost every teammate and opponent he encountered in his later seasons. Of course, he loomed particularly large for the other offensive linemen on the Ravens. They saw how he hated wasting practice time, how he played through all but the most debilitating injuries, how he always had a teammate’s back when tensions escalated during a nasty game.

“As soon as I came here, I knew one of the guys I'd be looking up to was Marshal,” Stanley said during his rookie season. “He's everything I expected him to be and more. Great teammate, great leader, really understands the game without taking it too seriously. If coaches are doing something he doesn't think is useful to players, he'll say something. He's kind of a players' leader. He's always fighting for us, and out on the field, he's always fighting.”

Yanda often brushed off questions about his stature, but he embraced his position as a sort of demanding older brother. Reporters would turn to him for assessments of a new offensive lineman, and he did not dispense empty flattery. But his praise became more effusive over time as he watched Stanley and Brown develop professional habits.

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They’re set up to fill his shoes eventually, just as Yanda eventually filled the giant void left by Ogden. As much as he’ll be missed, he helped create the line that will carry forward without him.

Yanda played a quiet but key role in the rise of Lamar Jackson.

One of Yanda’s final public statements as an active player came in defense of the last quarterback for whom he blocked. The Ravens had just lost to the Tennessee Titans, dropping Jackson’s playoff record to 0-2.

“We are not going to depict a guy based on one game,” Yanda said of his 23-year-old teammate. “We are going to take the entire body of work for the 2019 season. And the kid played his ass off. That is where I stand on that.”

Yanda protected Jackson’s predecessor, Flacco, for 11 seasons. Given the bond they developed, he could have treated Jackson skeptically when the rookie took over as starter midway through the 2018 season.

When Jackson proved he could lead the team to victory, however, Yanda backed him with increasing gusto. In his understated way, he appreciated the joy Jackson created for a team that had grown stagnant.

Jackson deserves most of the credit for how well the transition worked. He won veterans over with his humility, joie de vivre and sublime play. But if Yanda and other pillars of the locker room had not embraced change, the ride could have been far bumpier.

In the end, Yanda pulled off one of the rarest feats in sports.

They all stay too long.

From Babe Ruth batting .181 for the Boston Braves to Johnny Unitas completing 44.7% of his passes for the San Diego Chargers, we’ve learned to expect our greatest athletes to stumble through their final games in unfamiliar uniforms.

When it’s not that way, when Jim Brown departs for Hollywood after leading the NFL in rushing or John Elway throws his final pass in a victorious Super Bowl, we treat it as something extraordinary.

Well, Yanda won’t go down with Brown and Elway in the collective consciousness. He is, after all, a guard. But he pulled off a similar trick, performing near his peak level (Pro Football Focus graded him the fourth best guard in the league) for a 14-2 team in what turned out to be his final season.

Could he have come back for the final year of his contract, played well and taken a chance at finishing his career in the Super Bowl? Could he have added a few lines to a resume already packed enough to make him a strong Hall of Fame candidate? Sure.

But Yanda always said he’d approach retirement as a personal decision, made with his family away from the rush of the games, which he loved until the end. He deflected questions about it but said enough to let us know he never wanted to play below his lofty standards or even worse, have the end dictated to him by injury. Yanda decided, on his own terms, that he was ready to become a full-time family man in the home state he never left. You can’t beat that.

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