The Replacement


“I wish I could say something classy and inspirational, but that just wouldn’t be our style.”

—Shane Falco, The Replacements (2000)

Yes, it’s hard to know what to say right now. It’s been hard to know what to say about these Kansas City Chiefs pretty much since this season or even the preseason started. Last week, we saw the team’s four-game winning streak come to an end and now, apparently, the streak of games-without-season-ending-injuries-to-marquee-players has been halted at six. Of course, it is easy to say how bummed* we all feel on a personal level for quarterback Matt Cassel, who likely will be unable to play football or jazz piano or do needlepoint for the rest of 2011. But how we feel about the prospects of this team with his replacement, Tyler Falco Palko, is harder to articulate.

*”I feel rather bummed for Matt Cassel, on a personal level.” Okay, now you go.

Palko will be making his first NFL start, and it’s a doozy: on Monday Night Football against the New England Patriots. No one is really sure what to expect, not even Palko’s own high-school coach, who also happens to be his father: “What are you going to do? I just hope I don’t lose my dinner,” Bob Palko told the Pittsburgh Tribue-Review, when asked about watching his son lead the charge into Foxborough.

So a big part of the storyline—”Cassel Returns to New England”—that likely helped land the Chiefs on national TV for this game in the first place is now gone, but it is being replaced with an equally compelling narrative: The Chance.

Before Cassel went down, I was already looking forward to the next five games, the murderous stretch that everyone has been talking about since last year. If these Chiefs were going to get blown out by 30 points, this is the part of the season when it was supposed to happen. And so, in a sense, some of the frustration and shame of the most recent weeks melts away. Losing at home to winless Miami and then to Tim Tebow (which would be bad enough even if he weren’t playing with the hated and supposedly meek Denver Broncos) and wondering whether we have the right to consider either of those losses upsets is depressing and draining.

Now, at least, it gets good because it gets so bad: The Chiefs will be expected to lose every one of their next five games (which they very well might do*), leaving only two options: the expected, which is only so disappointing, and the pleasantly unexpected. Throw a new, untested quarterback into the mix and expectations don’t change much, but the outcome could be more intriguing.

*Except, of course, for the December 18 game against the Green Bay Packers at Arrowhead, which they are certain to win.

Lyle, Patrick, and others here have already offered great analysis as to what Cassel’s presence on (and absence from) this team means. Consulting all the incredibly average numbers they cite is a good way to get over this “loss.” The truth is, even with multiple seasons of experience, Cassel is still all about the allure of his potential: He was seemingly talented enough for Pete Carroll to recruit him to USC as a quarterback, but not good enough to start (granted, over two eventual Heisman Trophy-winners). He stepped in for an injured Tom Brady in 2008 and lead a talented (18-0 the year before in games that were not the Super Bowl) Patriots team to a record that was better than expected (given the circumstance), but still not quite enough to make the playoffs that year.

In other words, what had been happening with Cassel in Kansas City was the same old story. I am perfectly happy to have a new one to follow. I certainly don’t know much about Tyler Palko,* and that’s part of what makes this interesting. He certainly seems excited to get out on the field. Maybe this Tyler is merely the second coming of Tyler Thigpen, though even if he is, this team is not the 2008 Chiefs. There is still plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. It could be fun.

*Though I did happen to notice that between Sunday night and this morning, the length of his Wikipedia entry has about tripled. Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

Besides, we don’t have a choice. Palko will get his chance. Maybe it will all play out like some bad Keanu Reeves movie. Or maybe, something will happen to make us all say, “Whoa.”