In the final quarter of what might have been the final game of his NFL career, Marshal Yanda jumped early. The Ravens were in a hurry-up offense, trailing the Tennessee Titans by 16 in their AFC divisional-round matchup. Yanda took a small step back at right guard, and the ball wasn’t snapped. A flag flew. False start.
The Ravens’ season-ending defeat was full of moments like these. There were enough mistakes to submarine a historic season, and the flaws stood out not only because of the stage but also because of their rarity. Over the regular season, over nearly 1,000 offensive snaps, Yanda did not commit a single penalty. No other lineman played as often and as infraction-free.
John Harbaugh spoke with Yanda after the 28-12 loss on Jan. 11, and on Friday, the Ravens coach reiterated what his seven-time All-Pro selection had told him and reporters: that he had to think about his future in football. He turns 36 in September. He has three children, a Pro Football Hall of Fame-caliber career and a lengthy injury history.
As Yanda considers retirement after this, his 13th NFL season, the irony is that what makes him great might also make him content to step away. Jumping early could be better than leaving late.
"One of the things about being at the level he’s at and being at the stage of career he’s at, when you’re a Hall of Fame-type of guy and you’re a lineman, it’s really important to finish strong in your career, to play Hall of Fame football at the end. Because that’s when everybody’s watching,” Harbaugh said at his season-ending news conference last week. “And he’s doing that. So I’m all for him playing Hall of Fame football for another year if he so chooses.”
There might not be a more significant decision for a Ravens player under contract this offseason. Yanda is set to make $11 million next season, currently among the position’s 10 highest salary cap hits for 2020. But it is a fair price for what Yanda has given the Ravens recently.
Since returning from an ankle injury that ended his 2017 season, Yanda has been named second-team All-Pro and been rated the NFL’s fourth-best guard by Pro Football Focus in back-to-back years. He has missed one game in that stretch, a Week 17 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers last month in which the Ravens sat several veterans. And no player has epitomized the offense’s smashmouth style of play quite like Yanda, who paved the way for so many of the Ravens’ NFL-record 3,296 rushing yards this season.
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After the playoff loss to Tennessee at M&T Bank Stadium, he lingered on the field with friends and family. In postgame interviews, he answered questions as if he knew there was still work to be done (“Yes, we had a great year, but still, at the end of the day, we want to keep going. We want to keep playing.”) and also as if he’d reached the end of the line (“This is a young, good football team, and they are going to do some great things.")
But he declined to answer questions about 2020. “I am not going to talk about my future right now,” he said. “Tennessee questions — but anything other than that, I will divert to later on."
It’s unclear just how late. At the NFL scouting combine in February, Harbaugh said he expected Yanda back in Baltimore, but it wasn’t until a mid-April contract extension that his return was finalized.
Yanda’s decision could hinge on his health. He acknowledged after last season that if he’d ended the year on injured reserve, he probably would’ve retired. But his 2019 was as healthy as it was productive: The only snaps he missed before the season finale were in blowouts. Even in practice, he rarely took days off.
Yanda knows he’s needed. One potential successor, fourth-round pick Ben Powers, played well in Week 17, but that was his only appearance in a rookie season limited by a thumb injury. Another potential replacement, starting left guard Bradley Bozeman, joked after the playoff loss that the Ravens had started recruiting Yanda to play one more year as far back as training camp.
Yanda called himself an “old man” last month, saying that after his 10th year in the NFL, he realized his days in the league were numbered. But he called himself an “old man” near the end of last season, too, and Bozeman said he still returned a veteran leader who “comes to work every day and busts his butt.”
“He is the true meaning of the game,” Bozeman said. “That guy comes to work and does what he’s supposed to do. If he does decide to retire, I’d really hate that, but if he comes back, I’d be thrilled. We’ll see. Whatever his decision, whatever is best for him, that’s what he needs to do.”