Time to find a veteran QB?

Now the 49ers have some decisions to make. Quarterback Tim Rattay needs surgery to repair a torn muscle in his groin, and he won't be ready to step into San Francisco's huddle again until August at the earliest. But the team expects him to be in that huddle for the Sept. 12 season opener, leaving the Niners to ponder whether they should bring in an experienced veteran as insurance during the interim, or take the risk of spending that time grooming their youngsters at the position instead.

The Niners won't make that decision until after Rattay's operation on Tuesday. The muscle in Rattay's upper groin area was torn off the bone Friday during the opening session of the team's first spring minicamp when Rattay was rolling out to pass. Team general manager Terry Donahue said he had "never seen an injury quite as freakish as this one. But it is what it is."

Team orthopedist Dr. Michael Dillingham will attach the muscle in Rattay's groin, and then Donahue, coach Dennis Erickson and the rest of the 49ers brain trust will huddle to determine where the team goes from here at the quarterback position during Rattay's recovery.

The Niners still plan on Rattay, the heir apparent to Jeff Garcia, being their starter for the Sept. 12 season opener against Atlanta. But he could miss as much as a month of training camp and see limited action in the preseason, when he was originally supposed to get plenty of important work to prepare for his first season as the starter.

Donahue and Erickson admit that Rattay will miss out on vital preparation time, time that he needs to develop for what's ahead in 2004. And, let's face it, the Niners can't be completely sure Rattay will be ready to go by September, even though there aren't expected to be complications with his recovery.

So, how is Ken Dorsey sounding to you right about now?

The Niners are enamored with Dorsey, who has gained considerable weight, arm strength and – significantly – experience since the end of last season. He'll quarterback the first team through the rest of this minicamp, but the Niners are taking a huge risk if Dorsey still is being groomed as the No. 1 guy when the team reconvenes for its passing mini-camp on June 2.

"Well," Donahue said. "I think that when we departed ways with Jeff Garcia, clearly we took a risk. Jeff was an accomplished NFL starting quarterback who could win. Now, we took that risk for a lot of good reasons, and those reasons with Tim's injury really haven't changed at all. So we knew that there's risk involved when you do that. Again, I think the main thing is that Tim is not gone for the season, he is gone for a three- to four-month period, whatever it is going to end up being, but it is not like he is gone for the season.

"So I think that we have to take that into consideration when we make a decision. We have to look at (Ken) Dorsey, (Brandon) Doman and how much they will benefit with and without another quarterback in here. So that is just a lot of stuff that Dennis and I and the coaching staff will sit down and do here at the conclusion of camp. We obviously are thinking about possibilities as I speak. One of the possibilities is we don't do anything. We just continue to coach the guys that are able to practice and let them practice and get their reps and experience."

But that's not the most practical alternative. Even though the team would love to stand pat and develop Dorsey while being patient with Rattay's recovery, that might be an irresponsible approach if the team wants to ensure that it will be competitive this season. Sources indicated the Niners are more likely to seek a trade for an experienced veteran or consider an experienced free agent who is not currently attached to another NFL team.

The team's options, however, are limited because the Niners are only about $1.3 million below the NFL's salary cap of $80.582 million.

"We have other considerations we have to look at – our cap and our cash," Donahue said. "There are a lot of different things we have to weigh when we are looking at this. We probably won't wait all that long if we do something. We have already begun to compile that information, so if we go that direction we will be ready to move."

They will have to. Neither of the three healthy quarterbacks the 49ers have on their roster today has thrown a pass in an NFL game. No organization in its right mind would plan on entering training camp under those kind of conditions.

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