Since his days at West Allegheny High School, Tyler Palko has been trying to focus on the things he can control. As much as he willed it to happen, Palko couldn’t power Pitt to the national championships he had predicted. That was out of his control.
What can be perceived as his greatest failure, to duplicate his high school success on the college level, might have taught Palko his greatest lesson. In following a sterling sophomore season with a humbling junior year, he learned the one trait that had escaped him.
It showed this past season, when Palko went from self-described gunslinger to model of efficiency. It’s going to be necessary this weekend, as Palko waits to be selected in the NFL Draft.
“I can’t control where I’m going to go or when I go,” Palko said. “I’m going to sit back and enjoy it. I’m not the type of person to get nervous over a game. This is another step in my life I’ve prepared myself for. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to be part of it. Once I get back on the football field, I’ll feel more at ease.”
Palko believes he is prepared for the next level, thanks to his latest mentor, Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. After spending 25 seasons in the NFL – 14 as a quarterback and 11 as a coach – Cavanaugh understands what it takes to succeed there.
And believes Palko is prepared to make it.
“His lifelong dream has been to play in the NFL. I told him, ‘Well then, go make a team. Now, you’re in the NFL. When your chance comes, be ready to play,'” said Cavanaugh, a second-round pick of the New England Patriots out of Pitt in 1978. “We all see some first-round picks who are busts. They walk away with a ton of money, but no career to talk about. When he looks at it that way, I’m convinced he’s going to make a team.”
Where Cavanaugh first experienced resistance from Palko in adapting to the West Coast offense from Walt Harris’ vertical passing game, he then watched Palko’s metamorphosis into a quarterback who meets all of the pro game’s requirements – if not its prototypes:
“He’s smart enough. He can make every throw – he may not throw it through a brick wall, but he knows how to get the ball off in time with good rhythm and he showed last year he can be very accurate. He can throw the ball downfield. He’s got good pocket movement. He can make good decisions. He has good leadership skills.
“All of those things are in place.”
Rather than reminisce his greatest performances at Pitt – Palko has always been his own worst critic – he dwells on the plays he should have made but didn’t or the risks he shouldn’t have taken but did. Maybe that’s why his greatest improvement came between his junior and senior seasons.
“I look at the ones that made me a better football player, what I learned from my junior year to senior year, that I was able to take the criticism and make the changes that made me play like a professional football player.”
Cavanaugh recalls Palko’s mentality when they first met: Give me the ball and I’ll make something special happen. Problem was, his mistakes – especially against Ohio and Nebraska – proved too costly. And Palko learned that he couldn’t win a game every play.
What impresses Cavanaugh is how Palko adjusted so quickly, how he took his shortcomings to heart and worked to improve them to the point they became strengths.
“He’s got great awareness of what a defense is doing. He doesn’t get surprised very often. When you’re not surprised, you’re typically going to be doing things in good rhythm. You make good reads. You’re not going to make bad throws. You’re going to get us out of bad plays,” Cavanaugh said. “He proved to me all last season that he can make really good decisions and be patient. Great quarterbacks are patient quarterbacks. You’ve got to wait for big plays to come to you.”
Palko is waiting on his next big play, the one where an NFL team calls his name this weekend, and he’s doing so equipped with the one trait that could determine his fate.
• Palko also discussed in detail the differences between the offensive minds that molded his college career, former Pitt coach Walt Harris and Cavanaugh. Turns out, playing for both might have been a blessing for Palko.
“Walt taught me a lot when I was young. Not that I was ever an arrogant person, but he broke you down and built you up the way he wanted you. I fought that early and he made me earn it,” Palko said. “Matt was able to take me and something that was a dream of mine – to play in the NFL – and say, ‘These are the things you have to buy into.’ I owe a lot to him.
“Their personalities are different. Walt’s very hard to please, like you can never do anything right. Matt played the position, put his hands under center before. You throw a pick and come back and he doesn’t look at you like you have a third eye. He’s more calm, more cerebral. He took that Brett Favre mentality that I have and not got rid of it, but turned my direction and energy into playing smart.”
• Palko also spent time preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine and Pitt’s Pro Day by working with quarterback coach Jerry Rhome, a record-setting passer at the University of Tulsa who was the 1964 Heisman Trophy runner-up and spent seven seasons in the NFL as a player and 25 as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator.
“Jerry’s been a long-time NFL vet who played and coached, so anytime you can learn from an NFL guy and take the knowledge that he retained it’s awesome,” Palko said. “I was fortunate to have an NFL guy in Walt, an NFL guy in Matt and another NFL guy in Jerry.”
• One persistent rumor is that the Steelers could pick Palko on the second day, perhaps with a fifth- or sixth-round choice, to replace Brian St. Pierre as their No. 3 QB.
That would delight Palko, but not quite for the reasons you’d expect. He has the utmost admiration for Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and would love to work for him.
“Any time an organization like the Pittsburgh Steelers is talking about drafting you, with the history they have – and Mr. Rooney has been great to me in my years at Pitt; he does things the right way – to be part of that, regardless of being from Pittsburgh or not, would be something I’d be humbled by,” Palko said. “To have him be my boss would be a dream come true.”
• Another dream-come-true scenario would be if Palko was selected by the Green Bay Packers. He’s not shy about comparing his style to that of Brett Favre’s, and he’s been spotted wearing a No. 4 Packers jersey at the Duratz Athletic Complex on the South Side.
Playing for the Packers would not only give Palko at least one season to rub elbows with and pick the brain of his idol but possibly become his successor.
“I think it would be something that would mean a lot to me, to be drafted by the Green Bay Packers and study under somebody I tried to model my game after,” said Palko, also a fan of Tom Brady and Joe Montana. “To learn from one of the game’s all-time greats would be unbelievable. Brett Favre is somebody that popped out to me because of the way he played.”
• As for his thoughts on a Pitt career that was at times euphoric but ended on a sour note with back-to-back six-loss seasons, Palko chose to look on the bright side.
Little did he know that his sophomore season – when he became the first player to throw five touchdown passes at Notre Dame Stadium, led Pitt past West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl and clinched the Panthers’ first Big East Conference championship and BCS bowl berth – would be the pinnacle of his collegiate career.
Palko thought it was just the beginning.
“Obviously, my sophomore year when we beat Notre Dame and beat West Virginia, I thought we were coming to the peak and setting out to do something I wanted to do, win a national championship,” Palko said. “We won some big games, getting some big respect. I thought the program was going to take off from there.”
Instead, the Panthers went 5-6 and 6-6 in Dave Wannstedt’s first two seasons, and Palko finished with a 19-16 career record as the starting quarterback. Even so, Palko believes Pitt will reach the lofty goals he set out to achieve, even though he won’t be playing for the Panthers.
“Dave came in and he’s doing a great job. Obviously the wins and losses aren’t as great as we wanted it to, but you have to see the silver lining in everything. I thought we were going to take off and get Pitt back to national prominence. We’re aiming toward that now. I have no doubt Dave is going to get them headed in the right direction.”