After Marshal Yanda’s 11th NFL season ended with a sudden crack in his ankle and his 12th began with a third shoulder surgery, anyone could have forgiven the Ravens guard for feeling exhausted with his chosen profession.
Actually, the 33-year-old Yanda said Tuesday after his second practice back in uniform, it’s the opposite.
“Missing last year definitely gave me a lot of fire and desire to play this year,” he said. “I have a lot left in the tank. That fire’s still there, and it burns hot. I want to get back out there and play. That desire to play kept me rolling.”
The game hurts him, and he loves it more, not less.
“Every single year that I played, it’s meant more to me,” he said. “It’s been more important. There’s nothing else but football as you get older.”
That’s reassuring to Ravens players and coaches, who feel bolstered every time the team’s best and most experienced offensive lineman walks on the field.
“Tough, physical, one of the great leaders,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said, ticking off Yanda’s virtues. “He plays at a high level, and he does it on a real, real consistent basis. The things some people don’t notice from the outside is that leadership in the building, in the huddle, on the field in games. He’s just fantastic that way.”
After passing his physical on the weekend, Yanda began individual drills Monday and took a few no-contact repetitions with the starting offense Tuesday. He estimates he’ll need three weeks to reach game shape, but it’s conceivable he won’t return to games until the regular-season opener Sept. 9 against the Buffalo Bills.
For now, he and Ravens coach John Harbaugh aren’t saying.
The Ravens need Yanda, a reality that became more obvious as their reserve blockers struggled in the preseason opener against the Chicago Bears and in two practices this week against the Los Angeles Rams.
Even with quarterback Joe Flacco healthy and Lamar Jackson in the fold, they intend to remain a run-first team, and Yanda is one of the finest interior blockers in recent NFL history, as nasty as he is flexible.
“It’s really important,” Harbaugh said of having his All-Pro guard back on the field. “Marshal makes a big difference in our offensive line. What’s the exponential number? What’s the percentage better? A lot.”
Yanda’s dozen seasons in the NFL have been defined by pain almost as much as excellence, or perhaps excellence in the face of pain.
He missed 11 games after he tore his ACL in 2008, endured an emergency surgery on his right leg late in the 2011 season, had his shoulder repaired after the 2012 Super Bowl season and again after the 2016 season (when he switched to left guard midway through the schedule to protect his injured side) and fractured his ankle in the second game of last season.
The ankle injury particularly bothered the stoic Iowan, because he could not grit his teeth and play through it. He was forced to sit out a significant stretch of games for the first time since 2008.
Yanda had just about recovered from the ankle injury last December when he felt pain shoot through his rotator cuff during a weightlifting session at the Ravens’ training complex in Owings Mills.
“It was a punch to the gut,” he said. “I was pissed off about it. That’s a tough thing. Obviously, I was training and lifting and training to get better.”
He could’ve attempted to work through the injury, but he opted for surgery and the guarantee that he’d be ready for Week 1 this fall.
Despite his daunting list of injuries, Yanda missed just five games and made six Pro Bowls between 2009 and 2016.
He’s demonstrated a remarkable ability to reach peak form almost as soon as he returns from an injury, or to adapt seamlessly when he switches positions, as he has to cover for his own injuries or injuries to the team’s tackles.
He seems confident he’ll do it again in 2018, even with the accumulated wear on his legs and shoulders. “I feel like I’ve always been a really good healer,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’ve always attacked my rehab.”
He’s also inspired by what he’s seen from a Ravens offense piloted by a healthy Flacco and featuring three new wide receivers.
“The plays in the passing game are what’s jumping off on the tape right now,” he said. “You can see the separation of the receivers and the guys catching the ball. … And obviously, Joe’s practicing this camp. That makes a big difference. He’s looking great, and the offensive line, they’re grinding. Things are looking good. I’m excited. You can just see it on film that things are going well.”
On Saturday, Yanda joined the contingent of Ravens who traveled to Canton, Ohio, to watch their former teammate, Ray Lewis, enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The same honor could loom in Yanda’s future, given that he’s probably the finest guard of his generation.
But for now, he’s disinterested in contemplating life on the other side of football.
“As a general rule of thumb, once you get to 10 years, every year you kind of have to re-assess and re-evaluate,” he said. “But last year, with me playing pretty much not at all, there was no question I definitely wanted to play this fall and get after it and be a part of it. I’ll definitely take my time after this season, but right now, I’m focused on this year and doing my part. And like I said, I’m fired up to play.”