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Ravens biggest 2020 storylines: Longtime guard Yanda retires

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Outside of special teams, no players on an NFL field are more collectively unheralded than offensive guards. Like long snappers and officials, guards really only grab the attention of fans when they make mistakes, rather than for the steady work they put forth in the trenches on every single snap.

Baltimore fans are different, though. They appreciate strong, hard-nosed interior offensive linemen. They know that the unsung heroes of every touchdown drive are the blockers up front who made it happen.

Or maybe, it's just Marshal Yanda who's different.

Yanda spent 13 terrific seasons in Baltimore, establishing himself as the best, most defining guard of his generation. He was drafted in 2007, and he started 170 games (including the playoffs) across 13 years. During that time, Yanda became the face of the Ravens' offensive line and a player whose example set the tone for everyone else in the locker room.

Earlier in 2020, Yanda sailed off into the sunset of his career, hanging up his cleats to focus on his family and health. But even though he no longer wears purple, he will forever be ingrained into the fabric of the Ravens organization.

"There’s a phrase in this organization: Play Like a Raven," longtime general manager Ozzie Newsome said during Yanda's retirement press conference. "If I had a billboard and could post it somewhere...and put players on there that I felt like played like a Raven, Marshal Yanda would be one of the first to go on that list."

 

Everyone who spoke with reporters about the beloved lineman in March, including Newsome, head coach John Harbaugh and current GM Eric DeCosta, mentioned the Hall of Fame as a likely destination for Yanda one day. 

The bar for entry to Canton is higher for guards than it is for other positions. It's not a flashy role on the field, and it's difficult to properly evaluate the little things a lineman does well if you haven't actually played in the trenches. But whether or not Yanda's impact will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Ravens have already promised another form of recognition.

“So, we’ve decided. We talked to [owner] Steve [Bisciotti] and [president] Dick [Cass] and [head coach] John [Harbaugh] and [executive vice president] Ozzie [Newsome] and myself, really the whole organization – we can’t think of a better recipient to be in our Ring of Honor," DeCosta announced at the press conference.

Yanda retiring meant the Ravens losing a franchise icon. The team has only been around for two and a half decades, but it's already seen its fair share of NFL legends. Pro Football Reference has Yanda as the sixth-most valuable Raven in team history, behind only three first-ballot Hall of Famers (Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Jonathan Ogden), a future Hall of Fame lock (Terrell Suggs) and a Super Bowl MVP-winning quarterback (Joe Flacco). That's as great of company to be in as you'll find.

But his retirement also meant a sizable hole on the roster, one the Ravens have struggled to fill in the first year of the post-Yanda era. Yanda was known not just for his legendary toughness, technical brilliance and football IQ, but also his leadership and versatility on the line. He set the gold standard across the league for guard play but was also able to kick outside and fill in at tackle whenever the team needed. And countless young linemen who played next to him can vouch for how much easier he made their jobs.

That wasn't lost on the man charged with finding a replacement on a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

"You can't replace a guy like Marshal," DeCosta said. "As great a player as he his, he's a better person and a leader by example day-to day, and the other guys see that. They feed off of that. It becomes contagious. You can't replace that overnight. You hope you hit on some guys at some point who could become that guy, but that's like a once-every-10-years type of guy."

 

The Ravens have turned to a number of young guards for the impossible task of replacing Yanda, and while most have struggled, their former mentor believes in the players he's leaving behind.

"It's a grind every single day being an O-lineman," Yanda said. "There's not a lot of glam. There's not a lot of glory, but that's okay. If you have a good group in that room and those guys play for one another, good things happen, and that's what's going on in that group. I know that that room will be in a good place, and it's because of the men and the coaches in that room.”

Not having a lot of glam is just the way Yanda likes it. He told anyone who would listen that he wants to be remembered as a competitor and a leader by example. He wants to be remembered for his toughness and effort and for his love and respect for the game of football — and he will be.

But he'll also be remembered for his consistent excellence after making eight Pro Bowls in his final nine seasons, missing out on one only due to injury, and earning a spot on the 2010s All-Decade Team. He'll be remembered for his team success, making the postseason eight times and winning a Super Bowl. And he'll be remembered for playing his entire career in Charm City.

"I always wanted to be here and spend my entire career here," Yanda said. "I always wanted to be here. It was a great place, and I knew it wasn't the same [other places]. I've heard the stories from guys that came here from other teams and understood that this place was special...I can’t think of a better place to spend my entire career."

Fans in Baltimore are certainly just as appreciative of Yanda sticking around as he was for being able to stay. And unfortunately, Yanda will also be remembered for the hole he leaves behind both on the offense and in the locker room and the city.

But watching him retire is only sad because of the professionalism and high-quality play Yanda brought to the table for so long. It is better to have had a Hall of Fame player and lost him than never to have had a Hall of Fame player at all.

Perhaps Harbaugh best sums up Yanda's sensational career in Baltimore.

"We had a saying a few years back that was Marshal’s saying: Embrace the grind," Harbaugh said. "That says it all. I think that is what Marshal did. He embraced every bit of his career, made the most of it. He is, in my opinion, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and on behalf of all the Ravens – our organization, the players, coaches and the fans – thanks for everything you did.”