The QB question

Do the 49ers need a new quarterback? General manager Terry Donahue says it's a bit too early to answer that question.

He needs to take a good look at a healthy Tim Rattay first.

That's something Donahue and the rest of the 49ers organization never saw in 2004 as Rattay struggled through injury after injury after injury – five in all before a recent foot ailment sidelined him for the final time.

Because that constant rash of injuries sabotaged Rattay's first season as the full-time starter - and didn't really give the team enough evidence to accurately gauge his potential as the quarterback of the future - Donahue indicated Wednesday the 49ers might steer away from taking a quarterback with the No. 1 overall selection in next year's NFL draft.

The 49ers already own that pick by virtue of their league-worst 2-13 record. The team is struggling through one of the worst offensive seasons in franchise history, and the inconsistent play of Rattay and second-year backup Ken Dorsey has led to speculation the team needs an upgrade at the position to win in the future.

But as Rattay walked by in the San Francisco locker room with his throwing arm in a sling Wednesday – the result of surgery Tuesday on his right forearm – Donahue said the 49ers really can't be sure yet what they have in the three young quarterbacks on their roster.

"Unquestionably, you'd rather have clear, definitive answers to our quarterback situation," Donahue said. "But I don't think anybody could stand up on the table and say that, beyond any reasonable amount of doubt, this is where we're at – good or bad. I don't think we can do that."

Rattay, Dorsey and rookie Cody Pickett all are seventh-round draft picks. Rattay will play in only nine games this season because of three different injuries. Dorsey will make his seventh start this year in Sunday's season finale at New England.

Rattay ranks 21st in the NFL with a quarterback rating of 78.1. Dorsey's rating of 58.0 would put him below all 33 quarterbacks who currently qualify for those rankings. Pickett has a rating of 18.8 after throwing his first 10 NFL passes in relief of Dorsey during last week's loss against Buffalo.

The three quarterbacks have combined for 21 interceptions and 15 touchdown passes this year. They've also lost 11 fumbles, numbers that have contributed to San Francisco's No. 26 ranking in total offense.

San Francisco's porous offensive line and weak running game haven't done much to keep pressure off the quarterbacks. The 49ers are 30th in the league in rushing, and San Francisco quarterbacks have been sacked 51 times this season, the second-most in team history and two shy of the single-season franchise record.

"It depends on how you want to spin it and how you want to look at it as to how you want to analyze (the quarterbacks)," Donahue said. "If you want to look at the week (Rattay) threw for 417 (yards) or those kinds of weeks, you can get excited. If you want to look at other weeks when he was hurt and unable to play or didn't perform well, you can say you don't have a quarterback. It just depends on how you want to look at it.

"I look at Ken Dorsey, and I watch him play against Arizona, and when he's protected, he'll throw some errant passes, but he also threw some terrific balls and took us to a nice win. I look at Tim Rattay, and watch him throw for 417 and say, ‘Hey, that boy can play.' And then I watch him other weeks, and he's either off the money, or getting pummeled, or whatever, and you question whether or not you're going to have to go get a quarterback. I think that's reality. That's where we're at."

Which means, the Niners don't really know where they're at.

But they do know one thing: The quarterbacks they have led them to one of the worst statistical seasons in franchise history.

The 49ers are destined to finish with their lowest offensive ranking since the NFL began recording such rankings in 1972. San Francisco's offense ranked 21st in 1978 – the only time the 49ers have been ranked below 13th in the past 26 seasons.

The 49ers are 28th in scoring with 252 points and will finish with the second-fewest points in team history over a 16-game season unless they score 44 points Sunday at New England.

That, of course, can't all be placed on the quarterbacks.

And, as it stands now, Rattay will get another chance in 2005 to show he can be the team's quarterback of the future. He'll almost certainly enter training camp next year as San Francisco's projected starter.

"When he has protection and he has the time, I think Tim Rattay is a good passer," Donahue said. "And not everybody that plays football is a good passer, and this kid is a good passer. I just want to get this kid built up, I want to get him healthy, I want to get him protected, and then see what happens."

Donahue said, "there's not clearly a Michael Vick or a Peyton Manning in this year's draft," so the Niners are likely to address other areas of need with their top pick. Donahue also indicated there might not be a quarterback available in the draft who is worthy of the top pick. Two of the top prospects – USC's Matt Leinart and Cal's Aaron Rodgers – are both juniors and it still is uncertain if either will declare for the draft next year.

"Does that mean we're going to stand pat (at quarterback)? Not necessarily," Donahue said. "You'd have to tell me who's available and when they're available and what they cost and all that kind of stuff. Then I can answer you."

And for any further answers beyond that, he needs to see a healthy Rattay.

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