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Tyler Palko's wild ride to NFL starter

Posted Nov 18, 2011

After five years and stops with six teams in three different football leagues, Tyler Palko gets his chance as an NFL starter

Monday night’s reunion game between the Chiefs and Patriots may have lost one of its primary storylines, but it’s unearthed another story of a backup quarterback not so different from Matt Cassel.

Cassel was largely unproven when he replaced an injured Tom Brady against the Chiefs in the 2008 season opener. Drafted as a seventh-round flier in 2005, the college backup sat for three seasons and attempted just 39 career passes before his insertion into the lineup against Kansas City.

The Patriots worked out veteran quarterbacks like Chris Simms in the days following Brady’s injury, but ended up turning the job over to Cassel. Some considered it blind faith at the time. Cassel hadn’t started a game since high school and wasn’t particularly impressive during the preseason.

New England rode an inexperienced Cassel for the remainder of the 2008 season and the rest is history. The Patriots finished with an 11-5 record and Scott Pioli’s first major personnel move as the new general manger of the Chiefs was to orchestrate a trade for Cassel.

How will Palko’s story be written?

The 28-year old journeyman has weaved his way through three different football leagues and four different NFL franchises since leaving the University of Pittsburgh in 2007. He’s attempted just 13 career passes and has never started a game.

All of that will change Monday night when Palko receives his first career start on professional football’s largest stage.

“I guess it’s been a long time coming, but I guess when you’re really entrenched in it, you really don’t think about how long it is,” Palko said. “You set a goal and my goal was to be a starter in the NFL and I’m getting my opportunity right now.”

Take a trip on Palko’s path to becoming an NFL starter. It’s a wild ride.

College: After playing sparingly as a true freshman (2002) and redshirting as a sophomore (2003), Palko beat out Joe Flacco for Pitt’s starting quarterback job as a redshirt sophomore (2004). Palko would go on to have a very productive season throwing for 3,067 yards with 24 TDs, prompting Flacco’s decision to transfer to the University of Delaware.

Despite leading Pitt to their first BCS bowl game in school history (Fiesta Bowl), Walt Harris was pushed out as head coach after Palko’s first season as a starter. When Dave Wannstedt took over the program in 2005, Palko’s numbers took a hit. Palko would rebound to produce a solid senior season in 2006, but went undrafted. Flacco became a first-round selection of the Baltimore Ravens a year later.

“It’s football and there’s no blueprint on anything,” Palko said. “Whether you want to be a teacher, a garbage man, whatever you want to do – there’s no blueprint on getting where you want to go. There are obstacles, there’s adversity you need to overcome and it’s just the way that life is. Anyone that has ever accomplished anything great has had to overcome some obstacles.”

2007: Palko signed as a college free agent with New Orleans and competed for a backup job in training camp against Jamie Martin, Matt Baker and Jason Fife. Martin would win the job as the primary backup to starter Drew Brees and Palko was released along with Baker and Fife.

Palko joined the Saints’ practice squad shortly after his release and was promoted to New Orleans’ 53-man roster just before the season opener at Indianapolis. He went on to serve as the Saints third quarterback for four games during the 2007 season as he bounced back and forth between the practice squad and active roster.

2008: Palko remained with New Orleans throughout the 2008 offseason and was one of three quarterbacks to receive snaps in the preseason along with Brees and veteran Mark Brunell. The Saints choose to roster only two quarterbacks at the start of the regular season and Palko was the odd man out.

Palko remained out of football for the remainder of the 2008 season.

2009: Palko signed with Arizona in January of 2009, but had limited interaction with then-Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Shortly after Palko signed with the Cardinals, Haley accepted the head coaching job in Kansas City.

“I was part of the decision to (sign Palko) but when you sign some of those guys late you don’t get to spend (much) time with them,” Haley said. “We talked, crossed paths a few times and he had been out there even to visit Larry [Fitzgerald] a few times at one point or another but (we didn’t work with each other), not until we got here.”

Palko stuck with Arizona through the spring and entered into a training camp battle with Brian St. Pierre for the number three job behind Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart.

When the Cardinals decided to keep St. Pierre, Palko’s quest to become an NFL starter took a major detour that included placement in three football leagues over a three-month period.

In September of 2009, shortly after his release from the Cardinals, Palko got a preseason job with the California Redwoods of the upstart United Football League. Unfortunately, Palko wouldn’t end up making it to the regular season.

The Redwoods chose Shane Boyd as their opening day starter. Mike McMahon and Liam O’Hagan also saw snaps during the Redwoods’ six-game UFL season.

“It really was just something that happened and you kind of keep plugging along,” Palko said of his UFL experience. “Things don’t always go the way you want them to go in your career. I don’t think anybody, at least the way I was raised, you’re not too good to be brought down to Earth or to get fired.

“They play football there too and for whatever reason the coaching staff chose to do that. I don’t really look at it as a low point in my career. It’s a process. I’m not a big quote guy, but this thing is a marathon not a sprint and sometimes you have to scrape the bottom before you can reap some benefits. Getting cut anytime, getting fired is not a positive experience, whether it was by them or by an NFL team.”

In October of 2009, Palko inked a deal with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. He began his tenure with the team on Montreal’s practice squad, but was later elevated to the active roster. Quarterbacks Anthony Calvillo, Adrian McPherson and Chris Leak all attempted passes for the Alouettes in 2009. Palko did not.

In November of 2009, Palko left the CFL to sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh had just lost a 27-24 decision to the Chiefs at Arrowhead and saw QBs Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch go down with injuries in the process.

Dennis Dixon was installed as Pittsburgh’s starter and Palko served as his backup for one game. Roethlisberger returned two weeks later and Palko served as Pittsburgh’s third quarterback before receiving his release the next week.

2010: Palko’s era in Kansas City began when he signed with the Chiefs as a free agent in January of 2010. He was one of four quarterbacks during spring practices and beat out 2009 third-teamer Matt Gutierrez for the number three job behind Matt Cassel and Brodie Croyle before heading to training camp.

At the end of camp, the Chiefs decided to carry only two quarterbacks and released Palko. He was later assigned to the practice squad and remained there until December.

It wasn’t until Cassel underwent an emergency appendectomy that Palko received a promotion to the active roster. Serving as the backup to Croyle, Palko made his NFL debut in garbage time of the Chiefs 31-0 loss in San Diego. He’d complete two-of-three pass attempts for eight yards.

2011: After completing four-of-six passes for 35 yards during the 2009 season, Kansas City let Croyle walk via free agency and gave Palko an opportunity to win the Chiefs number two quarterback job. His primary competition was fifth-round rookie Ricky Stanzi, but Palko was competing against veteran free agents across the NFL as well.

Palko earned the job as Cassel’s primary backup out of training camp and attempted one pass in a lopsided Week Two loss to Detroit. His next action wouldn’t come until mid-November when he relieved an injured Cassel for the Chiefs final drive against Denver. Palko posted single-game career highs across the board completing five-of-six passes for 47 yards.

The wild ride of Palko’s road to NFL starter brings us to present day where he’ll make his first career start opposite Tom Brady on Monday Night Football.

“It’s exciting and getting a chance to get your first start and obviously it being Monday Night Football makes it that much more exciting,” Palko said. “Everybody is watching – friends and family and all that stuff.”

And a good portion of America as well.

What happens next is yet to be written.

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