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Joe Flacco's climb to the top leaves no doubt he belongs there [Commentary]

Remember this name: Tyler Palko, if only for a moment. For anyone out there who still yearns for the days of Troy Smith or who still thinks Tyrod Taylor ought to get a shot at quarterbacking the Ravens (Seriously, does anyone still believe that?) let the name Tyler Palko serve as yet another example of what I like to call the gross underestimation of how truly great a quarterback the Ravens have in Joe Flacco.

Yes, I realize some of you are still holding out for the Super Bowl win Sunday – no equivocating on my part, it's going to be a Ravens win – to finally give Flacco his due. That's why I bring up the name Tyler Palko to you remaining doubters and naysayers.

My story begins in Hershey Stadium in Pennsylvania on a crisp, clear winter night in December 2001, where I had gone to watch my former high school, Strath Haven, of Wallingford, Pa., play West Allegheny from the Pittsburgh area for the Class AAA state championship. Strath Haven had won the title the two previous years, beating West Allegheny both times, and was coming into that year's game undefeated, at 13-0, with a four-year record of something like 54-1. West Allegheny wasn't to be taken lightly, however. The previous year's title game had been decided by three points, and back to lead West Allegheny for a third straight title shot was the coach's son and Pennsylvania player of the year, quarterback Tyler Palko.

The best way to describe the game I saw in Hershey that night is Palko looked like a polished college QB playing against a bunch of high schoolers, and the final score, 28-13, wasn't indicative of how dominant he was. A few people in the stands who were up on Pennsylvania high school football told me the only other quarterback in the state who approached Palko in college level and future pro talent was a kid playing at a private school in Philly named Matt Ryan, then just a junior. Palko was going off to play for his hometown Pitt Panthers the next season, which to me seemed like a real recruiting coup for Pitt.

Impressed by Palko's play, I decided to follow his career at Pitt, where he played very little as a freshman and then redshirted his next season in 2003. This surprised me, but two-year starter Rod Rutherford put up good numbers both years, and the Panthers went to bowls and were ranked in the top 25. Meanwhile, the Pitt coaching staff, headed by Walt Harris, had also brought in a kid from Audubon, N.J., named Joe Flacco, to one day play quarterback for the team. Flacco redshirted his freshman year at Pitt in 2003, and with Rutherford leaving after that season, the starting quarterback job went to Palko.

Palko certainly didn't disappoint anyone in 2004, when he passed for over 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns and led the Panthers to a top 10 ranking and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl, where they were manhandled by an undefeated Utah team coached by Urban Meyer and quarterbacked by Alex Smith, who was on his way to becoming the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, by the San Francisco 49ers. Flacco, meanwhile, mostly spent the 2004 season on the Pitt bench, playing in just three games and completing one pass. Despite the Fiesta Bowl loss, Pitt's season was considered a big success and it helped land Harris the job at Stanford.

Many of you know the story from here but it bears repeating. Harris was replaced by Pitt alumnus Dave Wannstedt, a washout as an NFL head coach at both Miami and Chicago. Wannstedt planned to start Palko as his quarterback, which was the logical decision at the time, but he didn't want Flacco to walk, either. Flacco, by this time impatient, wanted to transfer down to 1AA Delaware, where he would be able to play immediately, but Wannstedt wouldn't give him a release. Flacco went off to Delaware anyway, sat out a year, began playing in 2006 and in 2007 led the Blue Hens to a runner-up finish in the FCS playoffs. He threw for over 4,200 yards and 25 touchdowns against five interceptions that year. The Ravens came calling, smart enough as they often are to see great potential, and they picked him 18th in the 2008 NFL draft.

I don't have to repeat to you what Flacco has done, but I find it amusing what happened to some of those he encountered on his trip to the top. Harris, who recruited him to Pitt, was a bust at Stanford and was replaced after two seasons by one Jim Harbaugh, who parlayed his success in that job right into Sunday's Super Bowl as coach of the 49ers.

Wannstedt wasn't any better at Pitt than he was as a pro coach; well, maybe a little better. His first two teams in 2005 and 2006, both quarterbacked by Palko, went a combined 11-12 and did not make bowl games either year. The teams showed some improvement over the next four seasons, but Wannstedt was let go after the 2010 season with a 42-31 record in six years.

Under Wannstedt, Palko put up decent but not spectacular numbers his final two years and as the team's fortunes slid, so did his. He was not drafted by any of the NFL teams after leaving Pitt in 2007. He got tryouts, however, and drifted on and off a few practice squads and did a stint in the CFL but was out of football last year, working in the financial sector in his native Pittsburgh and doing commentary on Pitt games on cable. The Steelers looked at him when they lost both their quarterbacks to injuries late in the 2012, but they passed on signing him. Palko will no doubt be watching his former Pitt teammate from somewhere come Sunday, but it won't be on the field.

Among some of other Flacco contemporaries, we know Alex Smith will be in the Super Dome Sunday, holding a clipboard on the sideline unless Colin Kaepernick, who beat him out for the 49ers QB job at midseason, gets hurt during the game. Matt Ryan? He was taken third in the same draft the Ravens picked Flacco 15 spots lower in 2008 and was offensive rookie of the year that season. He's led the Falcons to a couple of division championships and the playoffs and has won exactly ONE playoff game in five years. Do you wish he were wearing purple instead of No. 5? Chad Henne, another Flacco contemporary, would you want him instead?

Is Joe Flacco the second coming of John Unitas, Bart Starr, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana rolled into one? I doubt it, although from among that group he reminds me most of Starr because of his coolness under pressure. I'd also say he's as good at this stage in his career as the two guys he just outplayed in the playoffs, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. After Sunday, I believe he'll silence his remaining critics for good. Then again, if things had worked out differently, maybe Tyler Palko would have been in Baltimore, instead of Flacco. Ouch.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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