Garcia gets his job back

Jeff Garcia is back, and that is that. The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback took over the first-team offense in Wednesday's practice drills, looking as good as he ever has this season, and coach Dennis Erickson promptly named him the starter for this week's game against the Baltimore Ravens. There's no quarterback controversy here, as several offensive stars were receptive to that decision.

As he has promised since Garcia was injured a month ago during a loss at Arizona, Erickson handed the starting job back to Garcia as soon as the coach deemed his veteran QB healthy enough.

"He looked pretty sharp today," Erickson said Wednesday. "He moved around and threw it well. He's fairly close to 100 percent. I look at him right now, and he's probably healthier than he was at the beginning of the year."

Garcia has been plagued all season by injuries. The three-time Pro Bowler entered training camp with a bulging disk in his back and later experienced problems with his groin and throwing arm. A sprained left ankle against the Cardinals on Oct. 26 ended Garcia's run of 61 consecutive regular-season starts, a team record for quarterbacks.

Backup Tim Rattay went 2-1 in Garcia's place, leading the 49ers to lopsided victories over St. Louis and Pittsburgh that rejuvenated San Francisco's playoff hopes and had some observers believing Rattay should remain in the QB saddle even when Garcia was ready to return. Rattay was pressured constantly and sacked four times in last week's 20-10 loss at Green Bay.

Garcia probably could have played in last week's game, which he spent on the sidelines as Rattay's backup. The week before against Pittsburgh, Garcia was designated as San Francisco's No. 3 quarterback. He didn't dress for the Nov. 2 game against St. Louis, which was followed by San Francisco's bye week.

With a month to heal, Garcia expects to return against the Ravens on Sunday healthier than he has been all year.

"I'm definitely more fresh than I've felt all season long," Garcia said. "I don't feel like the ankle is holding me back at all. This month of basically laying low and being off my feet and trying to recover from the ankle sprain, it's allowed everything else to heal up, too. It's to a point where I'm ready to get back on the field."

Garcia struggled through the first half of the season, throwing eight touchdown passes and eight interceptions in eight games. His passer rating of 72.0 ranks 24th in the league, well below his career rating of 88.0 which ranks third in league history.

Rattay produced a passer rating of 120.4 in the victories over St. Louis and Pittsburgh before running into problems last week. With a 5-6 record and their playoff hopes on the edge of extinction, the Niners are ready for their regular quarterback to return.

"He's the leader," fullback Fred Beasley said. "It means a lot to get him back out there. Rattay came in and did a great job, did what he's supposed to do. But Jeff is our guy. We're behind him, and hopefully we can use that to our advantage this week."

Said center Jeremy Newberry, "He's been our leader for years now. It's always a plus to get a guy like that back on the field. He'll give us a big boost energy-wise."

Rattay gave the Niners a big boost when he replaced Garcia, but he has no complaints about going back to the sidelines.

"Obviously, I want to be out there and I want to play," he said. "I love to play and I love to compete. But he's ready to go, so I go back to being a backup and doing what I can to help this team."

Which also is Garcia's objective now that he's back on the field. He's confident his return can make a difference in San Francisco's sagging season.

"I'm going to come out with a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm," Garcia said. "That's really how I play the game. We have a difficult run in front of us, and it's going to be the ultimate challenge to try to be a playoff team. I'm ready to come back out on the field and compete at the highest level."

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