What about Tim?

Every time he was asked about Alex Smith on Friday, 49ers coach Mike Nolan responded with a mouthful, rattling off rapid-fire, detailed replies that dripped with equal parts admiration and optimism. But then someone asked about Tim Rattay, and a verbose Nolan was stopped in his tracks, appearing almost stumped.

Rattay, the 49ers' starting quarterback of the moment, practiced for the first time since his injury-plagued 2004 season ended in early December when he tore the plantar fascia in his right foot, forcing him to miss San Francisco's final four games.

After undergoing surgery to correct the problem at the end of December, Rattay had a minor setback in his recovery in March and did not participate in the team's early spring minicamp sessions for holdover veterans on April 2-3. He finally made his return to the huddle Friday, and Nolan was asked what he thought about his first exposure to Rattay, the practicing quarterback.

There was an unaccustomed pause from Nolan.

Then the coach hemmed and hawed.

"Umm … Uh … Let me think," he said.

After collecting himself, Nolan sailed away.

"The reason I am taking time to answer is because I was watching him closely on a few things because I have not had a chance to watch him live, as I have Ken Dorsey and Cody (Pickett)," Nolan started.

Nolan said he liked what he saw.

"He certainly commands things when he's out there," the coach continued. "He's very at ease with the offense. He's very easy making checks. He's very confident in the whole structure with what he has to do as a quarterback. That's a critical factor in being a good quarterback in the NFL. There are guys that get up there and they stay nervous all the time, or they're just uncertain of what's going on. He is very relaxed. I guess you could say he carries himself almost like a guy who has done it longer than he has."

That's Rattay in a nutshell: Very relaxed, unassuming, unemotional – and almost oblivious that Alex Smith is breathing down his neck for the starting job.

Well, that's not entirely accurate. Rattay's not stupid. He knows there is a reason that Nolan and the new 49ers regime selected Smith with the No. 1 overall pick in the recent NFL draft.

But he hardly seemed bothered about all the commotion over Smith on Friday – or sharing snaps with the rookie in the first-team huddle – carrying the same take-it-as-it-comes demeanor he displayed throughout last year's horrific 2-14 season, and throughout his 49ers career for that matter.

"I am going to come out here and work hard and compete and play as well as I can," Rattay said when asked if he'd get upset if he didn't get a fair chance to hold onto his starting job – another attempt to rile him that failed. "Hopefully, if it works out that I'm better, I will be the starter. I'm not going to worry about that right now as it happens. I am just going to go out there and keep working and keep getting better."

Rattay took the first snap with the first-team offense during practice-ending team drills, but everybody is wondering how long that is going to last.

On that first play, Rattay's pass over the middle was intercepted. Two plays later, Smith was behind center, turning his first throw into a beauty, a 45-yard reception that hit receiver Brandon Lloyd in stride.

Rattay has every bit the look of a quarterback on marked time, a caretaker for the position, the man who will trot out with the first unit until Smith is ready to play.

Of course, the guy still needs to be given a chance. His first season as the starter was doomed from the start last year when he suffered a torn groin that required surgery in the same first spring minicamp practice in 2004 that he was able to make it through without incident Friday.

The rust from Rattay's layoff showed a little, and he was tentative at times during live action. But the guy can still whip the ball to his receivers, and he's obviously ahead of Smith in his knowledge of the offense and knowing where to go with the ball.

Just the fact that he was out there at all was a step in the right direction for Rattay, who still didn't know earlier this month if he'd be ready to practice because of his foot problem. It's still bothers him, but he's not going to lose any more practice time now that Smith is on the scene.

"It has been a while and it feels good just to go through a practice, to be out there and be involved with stuff," Rattay said. "My foot's still a little … I know it's there. It felt pretty good today, doing most of everything I wanted to. I am still just working through some confidence issues with my foot."

With Smith as the quarterback of attention, you'd think Rattay would be having some confidence issues in more areas than just his foot.

But it looked like a typical day at the office for him as he barked out plays in the huddle and at the line. It's as though nothing at all had changed, as if he still had Dorsey and Pickett as his top competition. If Rattay's worried about losing his job, it sure doesn't show.

"He's played a lot and thrown a lot of balls," Nolan said. "He's got that little bit that says, ‘Hey, look, I am going to run the show.' Whether he is right or wrong is insignificant. You've got to have that attitude first. I was pleased with seeing that with Tim."

Read between the lines on that one. Note that Nolan says it's insignificant whether Rattay is right or wrong thinking he is going to run the show, which makes it sound like there's a pretty good chance Rattay might not be running the show.

Rattay, of course, seems unconcerned. Of course, he probably should be concerned. But at least he's the same guy as always, working dutifully and being consistent, letting the 49ers know what they can expect to get from him. Whether or not that's a good thing remains to be seen.

"My goal is to be the starter, obviously," Rattay said. "That's what I am out here doing, trying to compete and be the starter."

Somebody needs to tell this guy he IS the starter. At least for now. But keep checking back, because that could change any day.

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