Tyler Palko doesn’t exactly have the story of a QB that starts in the NFL. He doesn’t even have the story of a QB that plays third string in the NFL. You look at where Palko comes from and it screams “4th string emergency QB” more than anything.
He was a pretty pedestrian QB at Pittsburgh for four years, with great character traits and athleticism betrayed by poor completion percentages and worse decision making, before becoming eligible for the 2007 NFL Draft. The University of Pittsburgh isn’t known for churning out very good QBs for the past ten years (ask Jonathan Baldwin), and he found himself undrafted. The Saints, however, found the time to place him on their practice squad, and thus began a turbulent career-slash-non-career, which involved signings, releases, and time spent chucking the ball for the Montreal Alouettes.
His presense on this team is a signal that, for all its progress, it is still a very shallow squad. Which is okay. We’re rebuilding, and while the starting talent on the team improves, depth takes time more than anything to fill out. The deepest teams in the NFL are the teams that have been talented for longer amounts of time, and the Chiefs will get there. But for now, we will occasionally have to use guys like Palko for crutches.
You just don’t want to have to walk on these crutches now, the season opener for a challenging season after the franchise rejuvenated itself in 2010. But the Chiefs have been a little more blessed than most teams in recent history when it comes to backup QBs, from Rich Gannon to Damon Huard to Tyler Thigpen.
So unless Matt Cassel gets cleared (or clears himelf, more likely) to play, get ready to fire up the Palko Train.
A quick look at Palko’s game, after the jump.
Does Palko have the faith of the coaching staff?
This is the most important question of the near future of the Kansas City Chiefs, should Palko find a way to start. The primary reason Brodie Croyle failed in Kansas City was because he never once won the faith of the coaching staffs here. He started games in four different years under four different offensive coordinators (Solari, Gailey, Haley, Weis), and any time he saw the field under any of these offensive coordinators, his game was completely handcuffed. He was limited to short passes, and was given zero opportunities to make plays. None of the offensive coordinators trust him with the ball in his hands.
Tyler Thigpen was arguably the lesser quarterback, but because his offensive coordinator that year (Chan Gailey) trusted him, Thigpen had the offense sculpted to his talents and was allowed to have all kinds of open, creative plays called for him.
What does Palko do well?
If you remember watching Tyler Thigpen play in 2008 for the horrendous 2-14 Kansas City Chiefs team that year, then you basically know Palko’s game. Palko doesn’t have Thigpen’s elite speed, but he still has tons of it, and he resembles Thigpen in every faucet of the game.
He is very athletic, much more athletic than many of his peers at QB. He is incredibly good at improvising, which makes him at his deadliest during two-minute drills at the end of halves. This preseason, Palko was in for two of these drills, and he aced both.
Like Thigpen, he’s also never shy about over emphasizing his favorite receivers. He lacks Thigpen’s closed-mindedness (Thigpen would decide to throw to Tony Gonzalez before the ball was ever snapped), and he does have a pretty good zip on his ball. He’s tough enough to stay in for the hard hits, and has a really short memory.
He has incredibly high character, and is generally liked (if not outright respected as a legit QB) by his teammates. He has a fiery personality on the field that comes through when the team can put some points on the board. He’s plenty smart, and with the help of a smart coach, he can slowly figure out defenses over a few series. Against the Ravens’ multitude of game-long blitzing, Palko eventually figured out that the blitzers were often coming from the defense’s weakest coverage areas, and started throwing directly over the blitzers to wide open receivers (which is how he hit Terrance Copper for a touchdown).
He’s also had a full year in the Chiefs quarterbacking system, giving him more than enough familiarity with how the regime likes its QBs to play.
How might the Chiefs play to these strengths?
Uptempo offenses aren’t going to win a lot of time-of-possession wars, but putting Palko in hurry-up offenses has consistently brought out the best in him. The Chiefs have a lot of great personnel for hurry-up offenses. The offensive line is lighter and made for hurrying down the field, and Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster provide tons of great running options in a quicker offensive set. Le’Ron McClain is also deceptively agile in this style of play, as his versatility out of the backfield is a plus. Based on his time in Arizona, Steve Breaston thrives in this style of play.
The Chiefs could spread the offense out as much as possible, going four- and five-wide so that Palko can more easily read how defenses are trying to pressure him. While the Chiefs are depleted at WR and TE without Baldwin and Moeaki, Palko will still benefit by having Copper, Colbert, O’Connell, and Becht out there absorbing a defender each.
Rolling pockets, bootlegs, and play-action fakes may be necessary to allow Palko movement and spontaneity in which he is especially effective.
What does Palko do poorly?
Tyler Palko does not have very good size (6’1″, 215 lbs) so he is not going to be a great pure pocket passer, nor is he going to be particularly fearless in the eyes of a strong passrush. He has a common characteristic of younger, smaller quarterbacks: he is often very quick to get to happy feet instead of going through his progressions.
That said, his progressions are generally very, very slow, if they occur at all. His ability to read defenses gets stronger over the course of the game, but generally these realizations take time. Any defense that tries to get exotic on him may stump him; he’s never been in a game during these situations but I have a hard time he’ll be able to expose weaknesses in weird defensive formations he’s not used to seeing.
He’s got a good, strong arm that can make all but the longest of throws, but he generally doesn’t have a lick of accuracy. Losing Tony Moeaki is huge here, as is missing out on Jon Baldwin, because Palko is the kind of quarterback who needs a big body with tons of athleticism to make really goofy catches based on his poor throws. (Bowe, on the other hand, will seemingly get 20 targets a game from Palko!) I don’t know if it’s his mechanics, or his jittery nature in the pocket, but even when he gets a chance to plant his feet and throw, he’s got mediocre accuracy for short and intermediate throws, and zero accuracy for deep throws.
He tends to lock onto receivers and his wind up can be slow when he’s trying to put some power into his throw. This creates a ton of turnovers. He also doesn’t have the confidence of the team around him. The team will be supportive, but everybody in the locker room knows they are hitting the field with a guy who played in the CFL a couple years ago.
How might the Chiefs attempt to minimize these problems?
The best thing the Chiefs can do to mitigate the damage is establish the run game. Palko will most definitely face stacked fronts daring him to throw, but the run game will at least focus the defenses efforts in containing Charles, McCluster, and Thomas Jones. The more time the defense spends gameplanning to contain the run, the less time they are gameplanning to confuse Palko.
Anything the Chiefs can do to minimize the opposing team’s passrush needs to be done. Leave no tricks at home. Is there a dangerous passrusher? Run the ball right at them. Keep an extra blocker in. Send four receivers downfield. Give Palko absolutely every chance to keep Palko from getting happy feet.
Are we sunk against Buffalo with him under center?
Palko is a better improvisor and he takes less stupid sacks than Cassel does, but other than that, Cassel’s got better size, experience, faith from the coaching staff, and faith in his teammates than Palko does. He’s more accurate, less risky, and while he’s not the definition of a calm pocket presense, he can hang out for longer than two seconds.
The dropoff from Cassel to Palko is gargantuan, and it takes the opener against the Bills from “sure win” to “who knows.” Especially if the coaching staff comes out with a Brodie Croyle-type gameplan that handcuffs Palko at every turn.
That gameplan is a proven failure for Kansas City. It gave Croyle an 0-10 record in 2007-08, and an awful loss against the Ravens in 2009 and a horrific debacle in San Diego in 2010. Croyle may have needed the extra-conservative game plan because of his injury history, something that Palko thankfully doesn’t share.
But if the Chiefs embrace that eccentric, unpredictable talent that Palko undeniably has, and let his character and Jim Zorn guide him everywhere else, the Chiefs could have a Thigpen-esque explosion out of him. It won’t win games by itself, and it isn’t old school football the way we like it in Kansas City. But the hallmark of a good team is selling out to what its talent does best.
If Palko has to play, let the guy play.