They are left-out lefties with a hefty challenge, a pair of backup quarterbacks thrust into dicey circumstances and charged with making everything right.
In rapid succession on Monday, the Chiefs' Tyler Palko(notes) and Texans' Matt Leinart(notes) went from afterthought to unquestioned starter – likely for the rest of the season. With both teams fighting for playoff berths, and injured starters Matt Cassel(notes) and Matt Schaub(notes) possibly headed for injured reserve, there's a lot riding on those left arms.
These abrupt, potentially season-altering transitions at the sport's most important position are what makes pro football maddening to so many fans, but it's also kind of invigorating.
For Leinart, a former Heisman Trophy winner, first-round draft pick and Cardinals starter, it's a chance to get back in the limelight without having to resort to starring in a reality show. While Schaub is an established, productive starter who has helped push Houston (7-3) into first place in the AFC South, Leinart – if he seizes the moment – may have the honor of starting the first playoff game in franchise history.
Palko, too, has a path to the postseason in front of him: The defending AFC West champion Chiefs (4-5) are just a game behind the Raiders in the division. In Palko's case, he replaces a passer whose play has been uneven, and a strong showing – beginning Monday night against Tom Brady(notes) (gulp) and the Patriots in Foxboro – could give him a shot at supplanting Cassel in Kansas City.
Failing that (there are a lot of uncertainties about the Chiefs' immediate future), Palko has a chance to convince potential suitors that he's worth investing in as a legitimate NFL starter. If that seems far-fetched, think back to the flashes of competence which fattened the wallets of Scott Mitchell and Rob Johnson and, more recently, Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) and Kevin Kolb(notes).
Palko's role model should be Packers backup Matt Flynn(notes), who last December subbed for the injured Aaron Rodgers(notes) and nearly led Green Bay to a shocking upset of the Patriots. In his first career start, Flynn completed 24 of 37 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns, and likely made himself a lot of money down the road.
[ Related: Jets QB Mark Sanchez can't defend run of sloppy play ]
We'll learn a lot more about Palko and Leinart in the coming weeks, assuming each passer can do enough to remain relevant. In the meantime, let's hear from a man who says he's rooting for both of them: Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald(notes), an All-Pro whose hands are routinely entrusted with important matters.
When I watched the first round of last April's draft at Fitzgerald's suburban Phoenix home, Palko was one of the people hanging out. He and Fitzgerald were roommates at Pitt, where Palko beat out Joe Flacco(notes). Flacco subsequently transferred to Delaware and ascended to a first-round selection in 2008 and franchise quarterback for the Ravens.
Palko, who went undrafted in '07, had practice-squad and active-roster cameos with the Cardinals, Saints and Steelers and trips through the UFL and CFL before landing in K.C. as a third-stringer late in 2010. The team made Palko the backup for 2011 after electing not to re-sign Brodie Croyle(notes).
If Palko fails, Fitzgerald insists it won't be for lack of preparation.
"He's the hardest-working, most dedicated person I have ever been around – that's the God's honest truth," Fitzgerald said. "It's been that way since we were 17 years old at Pitt's football camp. His preparation and mental toughness will serve him well. He has also been blessed to have learned from some of the best QBs to do it: Big Ben in Pittsburgh, Kurt Warner(notes) in Arizona and Drew Brees(notes) in New Orleans – all future Hall of Famers, in my opinion.
"I'm so excited for Ty to live his dream and start in the NFL. He is sad that Matt got hurt and is appreciative of all the help he has given him. But the NFL is a rough business and he is ready to seize the moment."
Fitzgerald has less of a personal investment in Leinart's success – the two were cordial as Cards teammates but sometimes had what I'd call creative differences – yet he understands how much is riding on this opportunity for the maligned quarterback, his Texans teammates and a playoff-starved city. "I hope Matt does well for H-town," Fitzgerald said. "I want my boys [Andre] Johnson and Antonio Smith to get to the playoffs. They have worked so hard over the years and deserve it."
Now he has a chance to take the next step and take the Texans to the postseason, beginning with a game against the host Jaguars on Nov. 27, following this week's bye.
If nothing else, as with Palko's debut in Foxboro, it'll be great theater, with all eyes on the understudy. In the meantime, let's ponder 32 mysteries that may or may not resolve in due time, beginning with the undefeated and ending with the unwatchable:
2. San Francisco 49ers: When Jim Harbaugh threw his challenge flag after an apparent Victor Cruz(notes) first-quarter fumble on Sunday, only to be told the play was not reviewable because the receiver had been ruled down by contact, was the scoreboard operator tempted to show a clip of Jim Schwartz screaming, "Know the [expletive] rules!"?
8. Chicago Bears: Was Major Wright(notes) auditioning for "Dancing With the Stars" after his interception for a touchdown last Sunday – and, given the success of J.R. Martinez, will he try to pass himself off as a former Army soldier?
10. Atlanta Falcons: Rather than continuing to debate whether Mike Smith should have gone for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 29-yard line against the Saints in overtime, can we all agree that he and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey called the wrong play?
14. New York Jets: When Rex Ryan referred to Mark Sanchez's timeout call late in the first half as "the stupidest thing in NFL history," did assistant head coach/offensive line Bill Callahan high-five him?
16. Buffalo Bills: When David Nelson(notes), after his touchdown catch against Dallas, handed the football to girlfriend Kelsi Reich, how awesome would it have been if the Cowboys cheerleader responded by pointing to the scoreboard?
19. Philadelphia Eagles: After DeSean Jackson(notes) vowed to improve his attitude in a meeting with teammates Monday, was anyone tempted to yell, "Dude, we're 3-6 … now you actually can go into the tank, and we won't care"?
22. Kansas City Chiefs: For the sake of argument, is it possible that Palko asked for a locker away from Eric Berry's(notes) last season not because there were too many reporters around the rookie safety, but because Berry eats too many baked beans at Gates Barbecue?
28. Arizona Cardinals: Upon learning that the great Fitzgerald just earned his first NFC offensive player of the week designation, was it wrong that I immediately lost some respect for the award itself?
30. Jacksonville Jaguars: When wideout Mike Thomas(notes) yelled, "he ain't a virgin no more" in the visitors' locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday, how many of his teammates thought Tim Tebow(notes) had been traded to the Jags?
32. Indianapolis Colts: If Dan Orlovsky(notes) is called upon to start the Colts' final six games, will he have mixed emotions about threatening a record of futility that he and his Lions teammates worked so hard to achieve in 2008?
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