The QB who could have been

The 49ers will face one of the NFL's top-rated quarterbacks this week when they play the Jets in New York. But Chad Pennington easily could have been San Francisco's QB right now.

It's funny how things work out that way sometimes. In this case, it's ironic. The 49ers passed on Pennington - considered by some as the No. 1 QB prospect in the 2000 draft - when they selected No. 16 in the first round that year, a pick they had received from the Jets while trading down twice from the No. 3 overall slot in the draft.

The Niners took linebacker Julian Peterson with that selection. The Jets grabbed Pennington two picks later with the third of their three first-round selections.

The rest is history, so to speak, and both teams are - and should be - pleased with their picks. Peterson developed into a first-team All-Pro selection and a Pro Bowler the past two years. Pennington has become one of the top young quarterbacks in football and brings a 100.1 passer rating into Sunday's game at the Meadowlands. He was the NFL's leading passer with a 104.2 passer rating during his first season as a starter in 2002.

He could have been doing that sort of thing for the 49ers, who are going through a quarterback transition this season. But, even though Peterson is out the rest of the season after undergoing surgery this week for a torn left Achilles tendon, the Niners have no regrets.

"I feel great about taking Julian," Niners general manager Terry Donahue said. "I feel bad we didn't take Pennington. You want them all. You only get one. Certainly, would (Pennington) have been a good pick? Yeah, he would have been a great pick. Was Julian a good pick? He was a great pick."

After losing Steve Young - their star quarterback of the previous nine seasons - to a career-ending concussion in 1999, the Niners were seriously looking for a quarterback in the 2000 draft. Jeff Garcia took over after Young was injured and mopped up at QB during the team's disastrous 4-12 freefall that season, but not many people saw him then as the answer at quarterback.

Pennington looked like he might be the answer. Donahue, then San Francisco's director of player personnel, went all the way to the distant outpost of Huntington, West Virginia, to check out Pennington while he was evaluating college talent. He left impressed.

It left Pennington with the distinct impression he might be coming to San Francisco.

"I definitely thought there was a shot of going there, depending on what they wanted to do," Pennington said. "I really did. But they decided to go with Jeff Garcia and, obviously, they made a good choice there."

Actually, it wasn't that simple. The Niners hardly were sold on Garcia at the time, and they ended up selecting two quarterbacks later in the 2000 draft anyway.

But Garcia ultimately bailed out the Niners by developing into a record-setting, Pro Bowl quarterback in 2000, then following that up with two more Pro Bowl seasons while lifting the Niners back from the abyss. That allowed the Niners time to develop younger quarterbacks behind him, one of which - Tim Rattay - was selected later among the team's blockbuster 2000 draft class.

As much as the Niners needed a young QB to groom in 2000 - and even though they had several high picks as ammunition to get him - the team made sound choices with its draft decisions that year, several of which helped rebuild the team quickly.

And they ended up getting their starting QB of today anyway, lucking out by grabbing Rattay when he slipped to the seventh round. Who would you rather have at QB today, Pennington or Rattay? That question certainly is open to debate, and a lot of people would take Pennington, but you have to remember the Niners got Peterson and cornerback Ahmed Plummer with their first-round picks that year in addition to landing Rattay.

The irony is that Rattay was drafted as a flyer to be the quarterback of today. The Niners actually selected Hofstra's Gio Carmazzi in the third round to be the heir apparent to that position. At the time of the draft, then-Niners quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp considered the athletic Carmazzi as the No. 1 QB talent in the college lottery. The Niners knew they could get him in a later round on the draft's opening day, so they decided to pass on Pennington with their top pick, particularly since they needed help at so many other places on defense.

"The biggest problem we had, as we prepared our draft board, there was a strong sentiment on the part of the coaching staff - and it was just differences that you have in preparing for the draft - that they preferred Carmazzi," Donahue said. "We needed a lot of things (at) that time, we needed a lot of players. The thought was that we could pick another player and get Carmazzi in a later round and we would be happy."

Carmazzi developed shoulder problems and never played a snap for the 49ers. But Rattay is working out pretty well so far for the Niners, who may have gotten their QB of the future anyway after passing on Pennington - not to mention a lot more.

Niners Digest Top Stories