Rattay facing the mother of all QB challenges

Somebody has been brought in to take Tim Rattay's job since the day he first earned his with the 49ers. The sixth-year veteran held them all off until, finally, last year he became the team's starting QB with no real competition for the role. But now comes the mother of all challenges – trying to hold off No. 1 overall draft pick Alex Smith, a rookie about whom coach Mike Nolan already has said, "at some point, he'll be the guy." But Rattay has heard that kind of talk before and still prevailed.

It has been that way since Rattay was drafted by the 49ers in the seventh round in 2000 – four rounds after the team selected Hofstra product Gio Carmazzi, who at the time was expected to be San Francisco's heir apparent at quarterback.

But Rattay beat out Carmazzi for the No. 3 role behind starter Jeff Garcia and veteran backup Rick Mirer during his rookie year, and he has been doing the same sort of thing since while working his way to the top of the Niners' depth chart.

Rattay still sits there today, but nobody expects him to stay there long. Smith already has been squeezing Rattay's time in the first-team huddle – taking the first snaps in every session of team drills so far in camp – and he may already have passed Rattay in the minds of some coaches and players.

Rattay's reaction? Bring it on.

"In my opinion," Rattay said in even tones, "when I was here (in previous years), maybe not publicly, but they were always trying to replace me as the backup. I came in as the second quarterback drafted on a team so, in my opinion, last year was the first year I didn't have to compete for a spot. Every year (before that), they brought in guys. So, really, I enjoy competing. I love competing and I enjoy it. That's what I like to do. I'd rather be in a situation like that."

Rattay finds himself elbow deep in that situation this summer. After all, as Nolan and Smith both have said several times in the past week, the 49ers aren't paying Smith $49.5 million to sit on the bench.

Though his disappointing, injury-plagued season of 2004 was an obvious factor in San Francisco's decision to take Smith with the precious No. 1 pick, Rattay has endured through several challenges to get where he is today – which is still a returning NFL starter.

--- First off, Rattay clearly moved past Carmazzi during his first training camp, then secured the No. 3 role as Carmazzi developed injury problems that ultimately doomed his career.

--- In 2001, Rattay surprised many observers by taking the backup role away from Mirer. But the 49ers hardly seemed convinced he was the man for the role as they brought in free-agent Cade McNown – a former first-round pick – and Arena League star Aaron Garcia during the offseason to battle for the position.

--- Then, in the 2002 draft, the Niners selected Brigham Young University quarterback Brandon Doman in the fifth round to add to Rattay's cast of challengers.

Rattay beat them all and, by the time the 2003 season rolled around, he was taking aim at the starting role owned by Jeff Garcia, who was coming off his third consecutive Pro Bowl season. Rattay started three games in place of an injured Garcia that season, winning two of them and leading the team with a 96.6 quarterback rating that convinced the 49ers to dump Garcia due to financial reasons and hand Rattay the starting job.

Last year, as has been well documented, was a disaster for both Rattay and the Niners.

He tore a groin muscle clean off the bone during the team's first spring minicamp practice last year, and that began a string of five separate injuries – three of which required surgery – before 2004 came to its merciful end.

Rattay's performance suffered as he was healthy enough to start only nine games. But he kept fighting through the injuries and showed some positive flashes, such as his 417-yard effort to spark a dramatic comeback in the Niners' October win against Arizona. Despite the adversity, Rattay completed 61 percent of his passes and finished with a 78.1 quarterback rating that wasn't great but wasn't horrible, either. His career rating, compiled over 28 games and 12 starts, stands at a respectable 83.8.

This year, the adversity Rattay faces is the writing on the wall he sees every time Smith takes a snap.

But, after still being hampered this spring by a foot injury that required surgery, Rattay has been healthy for the first time in 15 months. He hasn't blown anybody away with his performance so far in training camp, but he hasn't exactly hurt his chances to hold onto his starting position, either.

"Everything is feeling good," he said. "It's good to be practicing when I'm healthy. It's good to be able to work out like that again. It's fun. I feel great. I just want to keep it going and stay out of the training room this year."

He also is staying out of any potential controversy, willingly helping Smith along, just like other 49ers quarterbacks did for him in the past.

"Ultimately, the way I was raised – my dad's a coach – it's ultimately a team game," Rattay said. "Obviously, I'm out there because I want to win the starting job. But I'm not going to not help Alex out – or anybody. It's just not my mentality. When I got here, Jeff was like that to me. It's a team deal. I don't go out there hoping (Smith) does bad or anything. I'm just going to go out and do the best I can and work as hard as I can and wherever things happen and they fall, then that's where they fall."

Smith is appreciative of Rattay's attitude. It has helped make it a comfortable situation for the rookie as he takes aim at taking away Rattay's job.

"I'm very close with Tim, as close as I am with anyone else on the team," Smith said. "I spend so much time with the quarterback unit. I can't say enough about how those guys have treated me. It's a tough situation for them. I'm a number one pick coming in at their position. He's got to defend his spot. They've been great. They've answered all my questions and never had a harsh word to say to me. They've been great guys. Phenomenal."

Nolan also has been pleased with the way Rattay has handled himself in the storm of indications that Smith is moving in at quarterback sooner rather than later.

"I think he's doing well," Nolan said. "He's competing. He's not moping, he's not doing any of those things. He's competing. As far as what he's doing, he's doing good. I can tell his foot's better. He's left the pocket and run when it was there many more times. Not that we're trying to get him to run, but if it's all you got, you've got to do it, as opposed to just getting swarmed. He's got more confidence right now in his foot than he had in the spring, there's no doubt. He's fine."

And then, in a cryptic comment perhaps revealing Rattay's true status, Nolan said, "I don't want him getting hit out there, but I want him moving the ball down the field. That's why you have backups."

Is that to say Rattay already is a backup in the eyes of his head coach? Rattay refuses to worry about those kinds of things. Taking that approach has served him well in the past.

"It is what it is," he said. "I've got to use the reps I have the best way I can. Obviously, I'd like more reps, but I just have to use the reps I have every practice and just go out there and just get better and show that I can do it. That's kind of my mindset right now. We've got a long training camp. I feel good, and I'm just focused on carrying it on and getting myself ready, and all that stuff will work out."


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