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blacksaint 08-05-2007 12:55 AM

Compete & Collaborate
Seeking the same job has quarterbacks Tyler Palko and Jason Fife pitted as rivals, but inexperience causes them to work together Saturday, August 04, 2007

By Mike Triplett

JACKSON, MISS. Yeah, you've heard it a million times, one of the oldest clich├ęs: He's the first guy on the practice field every morning, and the last one to leave every night.

But in the case of Saints rookie quarterback Tyler Palko, it's true. He is the one guy who has been making the coaching assistants put in the most overtime throughout the first week of training camp.

There are several reasons for it. For one, Palko doesn't get a lot of reps during practice as a third- or fourth-string quarterback, depending on the day. For another, he probably has the most to learn of anyone on the roster, as the only newcomer at the team's most complex position.

But his makeup has a lot to do with it, too. A scrappy, undersized southpaw from Western Pennsylvania, Palko had to work hard to get this far.

"I've got a lot of work to do, so I'm just trying to get my extra work in. And when I get a chance to play in the preseason, hopefully the work will pay off," said Palko, who shrugged off the notion that he's trying to impress the coaches and evaluators with his regiment. "I don't really believe in that. When you're at this level, that stuff really doesn't matter. If you're good enough to play, you'll be good enough to play.

"I just like to get out and get some extra work in, and I hate sitting around the locker room. So I guess that's why I'm out there a little early."

Palko still has a long way to go. So does second-year quarterback Jason Fife, who spent most of last season on the Saints' practice squad. So far, neither has distinguished himself as the No. 3 quarterback behind veterans Drew Brees and Jamie Martin.

As quarterbacks, their highs and lows are more evident on the practice field than most players. And with Palko and Fife, there have been a lot of highs and lows in Week 1 -- plenty of errant passes, a handful of interceptions, a few miscommunications at the line of scrimmage.

"With the two young guys, what you have observed is up and down. And you're looking for a little bit more of a consistent line, and that comes with the reps," said Saints Coach Sean Payton, who said the preseason games will speak volumes about their development, beginning with Sunday's Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.

Payton said Brees and Martin are to play before halftime, giving Palko and Fife an extended audition.

"Those live snaps that you get at quarterback over the period of four or five games is real important," Payton said. "Tyler's a little bit more 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, call it in the huddle, get to the line of scrimmage. And those are positives.

"In Jason's case, he's been with us now a year. So I think for both of them, the preseason games will be important to get a measure of where we're at at that position."

Palko seems to have an edge because he was hand-picked by Payton on draft day. A 6-foot-1, 215-pounder from Pittsburgh, he signed with the Saints as an undrafted free agent, in large part because Payton called and persuaded him.

After three years as the starter at Pitt, Palko has had to learn how to get into a rhythm now that he's not getting the majority of the practice reps.

"You've got to be patient, which is hard, but you've just got to be patient with it," Palko said. "You know, I'm a hard grader on myself, I guess. But it's a constant learning process. You don't come in here as a rookie, especially at the quarterback position, and know what you're doing all the time right away.

"The biggest transition for me is what they're doing on defense. You know, I've heard all the concepts and the things we're doing offensively. Defensively is the hard part, because they disguise so well and there's so many different coverages. The intelligence level on the defensive side of the ball is just through the roof right now."

Fife (6-4, 225) was signed late last summer from the Arena Football League, mostly to bring a fourth arm to camp. But he stuck around when third-string quarterback Adrian McPherson was injured, and now he has a decent grasp on the Saints' offense.

"There's a couple that I wish I could have back," said Fife, whose low point came when he tackled safety Chris Reis out of frustration after an interception the other day. "But I think all in all, my comfort level with the offense is much better than it was last year, night and day. I think my footwork's pretty good. I'm making good throws. I'm just missing on a couple others. So there's some stuff to work on still."

Fife and Palko said they don't think of their competition as a head-to-head battle against the other guy. They compare notes on the practice field and in meeting rooms, and both of them are primarily concerned with their own progress.

"It's definitely both (competitive and collaborative)," Fife said. "But we're both to the point where we want to see the guy that's competing with us do well. That forces us to do well in return, rather than, 'I'm glad he just missed that pass.'

"It's good, because Tyler, he's a gamer. He's a fierce competitor. And as a quarterback, you've got to know what you're doing, and he's out here every day knowing what he's going to do. It forces me to work that much harder and helps lift my level of play up even more."

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