OK Rattay fires away

Tim Rattay came to work fired up Thursday morning, then started firing passes around the 49ers' practice facility like he hasn't done in some time. And then the realization hit the fifth-year quarterback: This might be the best he has felt since the end of the 2003 season.

"Yep," Rattay said, before pausing briefly. "Except for that first day in minicamp."

Rattay felt pretty good then, too, back on May 7 when he began taking snaps for the first time as San Francisco's undisputed No. 1 quarterback at the team's first spring minicamp practice.

But near the end of that practice, Rattay suffered a serious groin tear while throwing a pass on the run, beginning a labyrinthine fourth-month period during which Rattay has endured three significant injuries, one surgery and dozens of painkilling injections just to make himself available as an emergency backup to play the position that was supposed to be his.

It looks like that position will be Rattay's again this week when the Niners face their heated NFC West rivals in a nationally-televised Sunday night game. Rattay said Thursday he expects to start against the St. Louis Rams, ending his two-week absence from the lineup.

Rattay separated his throwing shoulder during San Francisco's season opener Sept. 12 against Atlanta and hasn't played since. Ken Dorsey took every snap for the 49ers the past two weeks in losses at New Orleans and Seattle. Rattay returned to practice Wednesday and threw for the first time without taking pain-blocking injections.

He had no soreness Thursday and looked strong leading the offense in team drills, unleashing accurate throws that had plenty behind them.

"It felt great today," Rattay said. "I was fired up that it wasn't sore and I actually came out today and had a lot of zip and felt like I was throwing a lot harder. Yesterday I was feeling things out. It felt real good throwing yesterday but today was even better. I worked it really hard yesterday and I woke up today and it was fine."

Thus, after taking command of the offense in practice, Rattay pronounced himself completely healthy for the first time since his May injury.

"I feel 100 percent," he said. "The leg feels great. The arm's fine. I'm back to where I'm used to having it. It's fun to throw the ball and it just pops out there like it used to, just being able to fit the ball in places I know I could and stuff like that. Today it was just full go."

That's a good thing for the Niners, because they can use a change at quarterback. Dorsey looked strong replacing Rattay against both Atlanta and New Orleans, but he struggled during last week's embarrassing 34-0 loss to Seattle while battling a groin injury of his own that he suffered during that game.

Dorsey had four turnovers against the Seahawks, leaving him with a passer rating of 59.5, which is the lowest in the NFC this week. That makes this week a perfect time to go back to Rattay, who made his first NFL start last year against the Rams in San Francisco. Rattay threw three touchdown passes in that game and led the Niners to a 30-10 upset victory.

Rattay needed pain-blocking injections to be available as Dorsey's backup each of the past two weeks, but he has not taken any shots to throw this week and said it was "more than likely" that he won't need another injection to play against the Rams.

Still, coach Dennis Erickson is stopping short of naming Rattay as his starter. A cautious Erickson said he probably won't make that decision until Friday or Saturday. But Erickson said Rattay's improvement has been evident the past two days, and it appears a mere formality that he will return to the starting position.

"He looked better today than he was yesterday," Erickson said Thursday. "He'll get better every day. We feel, unless there is some kind of temporary setback, that he'll have a chance to play on Sunday. He's getting closer. He's getting back to where he was going into the Atlanta game."

Erickson added, "He isn't to where he was a year ago. Hopefully he will be in the next couple of days."

But Rattay seemed to indicate that day finally arrived Thursday.

"I definitely say this is the best I've felt in a long time," he said.

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