Palko Gets First Test Against The Steelers

The last time Tyler Palko competed for a quarterback spot was his redshirt sophomore season at Pitt in 2004, but that was against Luke Getsy with the starting job for the Panthers on the line.

Now, Tyler Palko has another battle on his hands, but this time the University of Pittsburgh grad is competing for a spot on the New Orleans Saints roster. And Palko's first NFL game is against his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers in the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame game Sunday night at 8 at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio.

"It's great to be playing against the Steelers, the team I grew up watching,'' Palko said. "But that's not my main focus. My goal is to just get better every day. I'm not worried about who we're playing or any position battles.

"I just have to worry about myself and play to the best of my ability. This is not the time to be worrying about how many quarterbacks they're going to keep. My main concern is to try to improve myself.''

Drew Brees will start at quarterback for the Saints and play a series or two, according to New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. Backup Jamie Martin will finish the first half. In the second half, Palko and Jason Fife, who are battling for the No. 3 job, will split time. The two have been pretty close during the Saints training camp at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.

"It's accurate to say that those live snaps you receive at quarterback over the period of four or five games are very important,'' Payton said. "Tyler's a little bit new to what we're doing, but he has an air of confidence to him.

"The one thing you see quickly from a rookie player is his ability to come in, pick things up, digest it and come to the line of scrimmage. Those are positive. In Jason's case, he's been with us a year. For both of them, though, the preseason games will be important to evaluate that position.''

Last year when the Saints won the NFC South Division and eventually advanced to the NFC Championship Game, they kept only two quarterbacks most of the year. Brees, a first-team All-Pro last year, and Martin, a journeyman who's only started eight games in his 12-year pro career, were the New Orleans quarterbacks.

It will be difficult for Palko or Fife to beat out Martin, someone who's been in the NFL for a long time, but maybe the Saints will keep three quarterbacks this season in Payton's second year.

"There are a handful of teams that keep two,'' Payton said. "It gets down to when you're looking at your game day list, in our case a year ago, we carried two kickers. There are some pros to keeping only two quarterbacks, because we had a guy that could give us something on kickoffs.

"The concern is that you need an emergency plan. We did a year ago with (wideout) Terrance Copper and guys that had quarterback experience. It's not my initial intention (to keep two quarterbacks). You're trying to keep the best players. So that's not my initial plan. I'd like to have three.''

Palko, a left-hander, started 35 games at Pitt and finished his career with 8,343 passing yards and 66 touchdown passes. His yardage ranks third on the Panthers' all-time list. His TD tosses are second only to Dan Marino's 79.

Palko, who turns 24 next Thursday, believes he can take his game to the next level even though he has long odds. Fife, an Oregon grad, was on the Saints' active roster for four games last season. He didn't play in those and was on the practice squad the rest of the time, but at least he was in the system. But Palko said he's picked things up quickly in Payton's offense.

"Sure, I really believe I can play in this league,'' Palko said. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could play at this level. I'm confident in my abilities, but it's a process. I'm just trying to get better at the hardest position there is in any professional sport. And being a rookie, they throw a lot of stuff at you. So, every day when I wake up, my goal is to just get better and keep on trying.''

And Palko's first test will be Sunday night against the Steelers.

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