3 Burning Questions: Quarterback

As the exhibition season hits full swing, SFI takes a look at each of the 49ers' positional units and asks three pertinent questions regarding where they are headed in the 2005 season. Today: Quarterback

The future at quarterback is here for the 49ers. The 2005 season will be about waiting for it to arrive.

The 49ers didn't make No. 1 overall draft pick Alex Smith their $50 million man to have him sit on the bench and be brought along slowly. They want the 21-year-old NFL novice behind center as soon as possible, earning that big paycheck.

That's where Smith has been this summer, taking the bulk of the work with the first team even though incumbent veteran Tim Rattay entered training camp still listed No. 1 on the depth chart. Smith started the preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders and will start again Saturday at Denver, but Rattay's experience makes him an attractive alternative and a nice security blanket if the hotshot rookie simply isn't ready once the real games begin.

Q: So, Alex Smith or Tim Rattay?

A: It's the Great Debate that could rage well into the season, regardless of who takes the starting snaps in any particular game. Rattay, with his five years of pro experience, is more NFL ready. But Smith's superior size, athleticism and the poise with which he carries himself on and off the field belies his youth and entices the 49ers to get him out there sooner rather than later. He's going to be the guy, and everybody knows it. But the goal, even in this season of change and transition, is to win games. Coach Mike Nolan is obligated to put on the field the quarterback that gives the 49ers the best shot at victory each Sunday. "I'm trying to win the (NFC) West, so to speak," Nolan said. "That's our goal, and I'm not trying to necessarily develop someone unless they are the guy."

Q: Can Rattay pull a Drew Brees?

A: By now, everybody knows the story of Brees, the young veteran QB who became an apparent afterthought in San Diego once the Chargers came out of the 2004 draft with Philip Rivers ticketed as their franchise quarterback. But Rivers held out in training camp, Brees held onto his starting job, then produced a prolific season behind center that sparked the Chargers to an improbable worst-to-first turnaround in the competitive AFC West. That seems like an unlikely scenario in San Francisco, but that's what they were thinking in San Diego last year, too. Because of injuries, a weak offensive line and other contributing factors, Rattay was never in a position to succeed last year, and may not have received the chance he needed to show his stuff. He's healthy now, lurking in the background of all the Smith hoopla and preparing for a Brees-like opportunity that may or may not come. "I'm just happy to be healthy again," Rattay said, referring to the five different injuries that plagued him last year, three of which required surgery. "I'm feeling great, playing the way I know I can, the way I did two years ago. So I like the competition."

Q: Can the 49ers afford NOT to play Smith?

A: It's a legitimate factor that enters into the equation. The 49ers have been promoting and marketing Smith as the new face of the franchise since that day in April they made him the first choice of every college player in the land. They have heaped huge expectations upon him, and there may be no turning back in that regard now that the huge legion of restless San Francisco fans have been told to start getting excited about the new rookie wunderkind. As Nolan himself points out, "As I've said all along, we didn't draft him to sit him on the bench. So I want to find out." And that is what he is doing with every snap Smith takes this summer.

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