Friday, August 04, 2017

The Legend of Yanda

Ravens guard Marshal Yanda may be unknown to casual fans, but he’s a star in the eyes of NFL defenders. Entering his 11th season, Yanda is set to keep climbing — and quietly destroying all comers.

By Robert Mays
August 4, 2017

In the days before John Harbaugh was hired as the Ravens’ head coach, every stall in Baltimore’s locker room was adorned with a small plaque. Each player’s personal accomplishments were listed above his nameplate, from Pro Bowl berths to All-Pro honors to individual awards. Upon joining the team as a rookie in 2007, Marshal Yanda remembers strolling, mouth agape, by the locker belonging to future Hall of Fame tackle Jonathan Ogden. “I was like, ‘This guy has made the Pro Bowl 10 years in a row?’” Yanda tells The Ringer. “I’ll never forget that plaque.”

Yanda, then 22 years old, entered the league as an undersized, uncelebrated third-round pick. Not long after gazing upon what’s now inscribed on Ogden’s bust in Canton, the guard caught a glimpse of the 6-foot-9 living legend roaming around the team’s weight room. “I played right tackle in college, so I’d played ‘tackle,’” Yanda says. “I walk [in], and I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit. How am I ever going to play on the same field with a man of that size?’ He is a giant.”

In those days, Yanda kept mostly to himself, seen but not heard around the Baltimore facility. It wasn’t long, though, before he made an impression on the almost mythical presence he’d admired from afar. “I remember this guy, not really big, not really that imposing,” Ogden says of Yanda. “But when he got out there, he had sound technique, and he also had this toughness about him. That, ‘I grew up on a farm, I bailed hay, and I’m just gonna out-tough you’ mentality.”

Ogden, a nine-time All-Pro and the first draft pick in Ravens franchise history, was going into the final season of his career in 2007. He recognized then what Yanda could not: The rookie had what it took to be “one of the good ones.” The pair spent only one year together, but Yanda seized on every moment he could to mine Ogden for advice. “He would always pick my brain about how I lasted so long in the league,” Ogden says.

Ten years have passed since Yanda was awed by Ogden’s gold-plated résumé, and now the 32-year-old boasts a sparkling career of his own. Over the past six years, Yanda has been to six Pro Bowls. He was named first- or second-team All-Pro five times during that stretch. He has become the NFL’s consensus best player at his position, and like past great interior offensive linemen, he’s done so largely in the dark.

Yanda is one of the sport’s great talents, yet football fans outside of Baltimore barely know his name. In an age of unceasing information, he’s a walking contradiction: a future Hall of Famer hiding in plain sight.

“I’ve played with guys in the Hall of Fame,” former Ravens center Matt Birk says. “I’ve played with guys who are going to be in the Hall of Fame. He is right at the top of my list as far as complete football players that I had the pleasure of playing with.”

When Yanda got to Baltimore in 2007, he took professional cues from established veteran standouts like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Todd Heap. One such pointer was internalizing what a player had to do to earn the right to spend the offseason where he pleased, and by his fifth NFL season, Yanda finally felt comfortable doing just that.

He now spends every spring at his home near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, driving his blue 2007 Chevy Silverado with more than 130,000 miles on the odometer to nearby ponds and lakes to fish for walleye, bass, and salmon. After finishing a season, those days on the water provide his chance to exhale. “You can feel the stress just roll out of the boat,” Yanda says.

Every aspect of Yanda’s life away from the Ravens draws him back home. He grew up in Anamosa, a small town with a population of about 5,500 that sits 50 minutes north of Iowa City. It was in the middle of “Hawkeye country,” as Yanda puts it, and most Saturdays were spent watching head coach Hayden Fry’s Iowa teams on the living room TV. Yanda dreamed of one day playing in Kinnick Stadium, but poor grades forced him to attend North Iowa Area Community College directly after high school. On the first day of NIACC practice, head coach Tyler Sisco gathered all 122 players in the school’s auditorium and asked how many wanted to play Division I-A football. Every man raised a hand. Sisco told them less than 1 percent would get there. “I was the only guy that made it,” Yanda says. “[Those odds] were hammered into my head.”

As he neared the end of his tenure at NIACC, Yanda had received a single scholarship offer, from Iowa State. “At that point, [the University of Iowa] wanted me to walk on,” Yanda says. “I thought I’d have to get my schooling paid for — because I didn’t know. I thought I was maybe gonna play ball for two more years and be done. I wasn’t even thinking about [the NFL].” Yanda figured that he would ultimately go into coaching or return to his father’s 1,000-acre farm, where the family harvests corn and beans while raising a handful of steers.

With his hopes of playing at his dream school dwindling and nothing to lose, Yanda decided to take control of his future. On Sundays during the 2004 college football season, he would hop in his truck and drive the 165 miles from NIACC’s campus in Mason City to Iowa City. While the Hawkeyes stretched and jogged Kinnick Stadium, Yanda hung around hoping to get noticed. “It was kind of like a dog on your porch that won’t go away,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz says.

The ploy eventually worked. On the morning Yanda was supposed to drive to Ames to sign his national letter of intent with Iowa State, he woke up to a voicemail from Hawkeyes offensive line coach Reese Morgan. Iowa was ready to give him what he had always wanted.

The spring after Yanda joined the Hawkeyes, Ferentz couldn’t help but wonder if he’d made a mistake. “Very candidly, [Yanda] was less than impressive,” Ferentz says. “The way I describe Marshal is that he’s not the prettiest guy in shorts.” Yanda lumbered and stumbled his way through initial practices. Then the pads came on. Everyone who lined up across from him was stonewalled, and by Week 1 he’d established himself as the starting right tackle.

“I told scouts [before the 2007 NFL draft], ‘Your line coach is going to hate him when he sees him at the combine,’” Ferentz says. “‘Whoever drafts him, the line coach is going to be mad at the personnel people.’ He’ll come to OTAs and all that stuff, and they’re still not going to be thrilled. But once you start practicing football, the line coach will walk down the hall in three days and say, ‘Ya know, this Yanda kid’s not bad.’”

The quintessential Marshal Yanda play happened in Week 13 of the 2014 season, during the second quarter of a 34–33 loss to the Chargers. The Ravens faced first-and-10 from their own 31-yard line, and handed the ball to running back Justin Forsett coming off the right side.

Yanda’s assignment was fairly simple: help right tackle Rick Wagner double-team the defensive end before climbing up to block the inside linebacker. What transpired was nothing short of extraordinary. After giving the end a quick punch with his right hand, Yanda felt the nose tackle slipping his way, so he offered a quick nudge to aid center Jeremy Zuttah before finally getting to his man. He helped neutralize three defenders on a single play, springing Forsett for a 23-yard gain. “It’s just the right time, right place,” Yanda says as he watches a replay. “You could run that 100 times — 1,000 times — and it doesn’t work out like that. That’s just instinctively running zone for so many years, knowing the angles.”

The sequence may be a one-in-a-thousand shot for Yanda, but for most guys it’s completely unfathomable. As he recounts his movements on the play, he sits on a seat designed for a much smaller man and forcefully shifts his body from side to side without ever lifting a chair leg. It’s a dazzling display of power and control, a blend of precision in which Yanda’s brilliance is rooted. Rarely does he make a false step or misplace his hand, and he’s never passive on Sundays. “The game is probably a little bit slower for him than it is for most people,” Birk says. “He’s able to react to things, he’s able to fit in on double-teams. When he’s supposed to take half the guy, he takes half the guy.”

At times, linemen blessed with Yanda’s strength can hinder the teammates positioned next to them, forcing them away from their intended path and sabotaging the cohesion necessary for lines to thrive. “Some guys will try to be so aggressive that you’ll work against each other,” former Ravens center and current 49er Jeremy Zuttah says. “Their angle will actually be going against the angle you’re trying to take him. Marshal would always give me space to work.”

Knowing how to strike the proper balance is a product of meticulous repetition. Raiders guard Kelechi Osemele was drafted by Baltimore in 2012, and he remembers watching Yanda approach every footwork drill with the same maniacal focus. “A coach can always give you a starting point — where to set, how to use your hands, where to punch — but at the end of the day, you still have to develop your own skill set, your own instincts, and have a plan,” Osemele says. “I think he has that down. He has that tool set, and he knows what works for him.”

He also is a man of ingrained habits. To hear Wagner tell it, players don’t need a clock to know what time it is in the Ravens’ facility. All they have to do is locate Yanda at a given moment, and it’s obvious. “Hot tub, breakfast — it was the same thing every day,” Wagner says.

For a man so reliant on routine, Yanda must have found his first four NFL seasons maddening. He spent those years bouncing around the line, from right tackle to guard and back again. Before his fourth campaign, it seemed as if Yanda would finally get the chance to play his desired guard spot full time. “I wanted to play guard so bad in 2010,” Yanda says. “I had a frickin’ great camp at guard. I was doing well. I was excited. And then ‘Hey, we need you to play right tackle.’ And of course, I didn’t say nothin’.”

It wasn’t until the following season, in 2011, that Yanda got to play his natural position all 16 games for the first time in his career. He hasn’t missed a trip to the Pro Bowl since. “I’m just not tall enough to be a dominant tackle,” Yanda says. “I can get it done, no question, but I’m not a dominant player.”

Yanda may be the league’s preeminent guard, but his style as a pass protector is far from textbook. All the time that he spent playing tackle attuned him to a set of movements calibrated for stopping defenders on the edge. He got used to giving elite pass rushers space immediately after the snap; once Yanda transitioned back inside, that was a tough habit to break. “I don’t like to set guys on the line because a lot of defensive linemen do their moves right at the line of scrimmage, especially at guard,” Yanda says. “J.J. Watt, friggin’ arm-over [move] inside right on the line. He wants you to go out there and punch him.”

Out of that desire has come a pass-blocking method most inside players could never dream of executing. By conceding ground to defensive tackles at the snap, Yanda dares them to plow him over, and most fall right into his trap. “If a lot of guys tried that, they’d just get run over all the time,” Zuttah says. “[Yanda] just jumps in place. It’s like a spring, and it’s over. I can’t even describe it.” Birk says it’s the same maneuver he used to watch Hall of Fame guard Randall McDaniel pull in their time together on the Vikings.

By hopping in place, Yanda is able to reposition his hands and regain leverage over most defensive linemen, with one major exception: Bengals superstar Geno Atkins. Atkins’s smaller stature, considered a detriment when he came into the league in 2010, allows him to stay under Yanda despite the latter’s repeated efforts to reestablish himself. “[Atkins is] a bull,” Yanda says. “I’m fighting my ass off to keep him away. That ball better be gone because sooner or later, he will beat me.”

Listening to Yanda talk about the league’s best interior rushers, it’s clear that his homework goes beyond due diligence. It borders on obsession. Each week, Yanda downloads his upcoming opponent’s previous six games to his iPad. With no need for internet connection, he’s able to consume game tape anywhere. “In the corner of the hotel, or the training room, or at lunch, he always had that iPad,” Wagner says. Yanda’s favorite spot is the cloth recliner in his living room, where he takes in about a game a night while his wife, Shannon, watches Nashville from the couch after their three kids have been put to bed. “You never want to be surprised by a guy,” Yanda says. “I want to know every single move that he does. When it’s third down, and they’re down by seven points, and they need to win and get off the field, what is he doing to win? What has he naturally done his entire life?”

Yanda’s study habits don’t stop at watching film. He wants to know about every factor in an opponent’s life that could have the slightest influence on his game. In the days leading up to the Ravens’ 2014 matchup against the Buccaneers, Yanda raved about Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy, a Pro Bowler who’d displayed a newfound ass-kicking edge that fall. It wasn’t hard for Yanda to discern why. McCoy was on the brink of getting an extension.

“I want to know every guy that’s in his contract year,” Yanda says. “Guys are playing for their money. You’re damn right. A guy that’s OK in his fourth year, but in his fifth year is, ‘What the hell? This guy is balling. What the fuck?’ What is it? It’s his contract year.”

McCoy had been “wrecking the field,” as Yanda puts it, all season. Against the Ravens, he was blanked: no sacks and no quarterback hits. “They paid him like a week or two after we played him,” Yanda says.

Seated at a plastic folding table just down the hall from the Ravens locker room, Yanda explains his method of pass blocking in great detail. “I want [opponents] to bull-rush me,” he says.

As the words spill from his mouth, Chris Wormley, a rookie defensive lineman out of Michigan, stops in his tracks. “Picking up some pointers,” Wormley says. “Yeah … die a slow death,” Yanda shoots back.

From where he’s sitting, Yanda can peer into the weight room where he marveled at Ogden more than a decade ago. The difference these days is that now Yanda is the Pro Bowl fixture Baltimore’s young players try to emulate. His career has become the one rookies aspire to have. Still, Yanda bristles at comparisons with Ogden. “It took me five years before I made my first [Pro Bowl],” Yanda says. “We’re in a different league.”

The way Yanda sees it, the defensive linemen in the league are too good, the game too demanding, for him to ever consider his place among the all-time greats. “At Iowa, we were always taught that complacency kills,” Yanda says. “And once you feel like you’ve arrived, and you’re the man, like you’re on top of the world — pride comes before the fall, and you’re going down. They drilled that into us.”

The names of defensive linemen he lists off to make his point — Watt, McCoy, and Atkins chief among them — are all on the Ravens’ schedule this season. “I have Geno right out the gate,” Yanda says. “I have J.J. Watt on Monday Night Football. I’ve got Ndamukong Suh this year. You prepare the same for every game, but those circle games? I love those games. I live for those games.”

The feeling of admiration from his opponents is mutual. “When I tell my son or daughter about football, I’ll tell them that [Yanda] was one of the best guards I went up against in the league,” Atkins said at the 2016 Pro Bowl. “He’s got nastiness, he’s physical, and he has finesse. He’s strong, but if you try to beat him with a little finesse, he can handle that too, because he’s got good feet. He’s got the whole package.”

While Yanda may never be a famous face around the league, that hasn’t stopped his legend from spreading: The stars about whom fans will tell tales for years to come will do the same about Marshal Yanda.

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