QB shakeup: Rattay in as season starter

The Alex experiment is over. Niners coach Mike Nolan on Tuesday put the team's present ahead of the franchise's hopes for an early rising of No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith, naming veteran Tim Rattay as San Francisco's starting quarterback for the 2005 season. In a sudden switch of direction at the game's most important position, Nolan did the obvious – giving the duty to an incumbent who has earned the position and taking it away from a talented rookie who wasn't quite ready for the job.

That is, if Smith ever actually had the job.

The top pick in the 2005 draft was thrust into the No. 1 role entering training camp, but that was primarily to see what he could do and how he'd respond amid those kind of circumstances. Smith looked good – and maybe even better than good – during summer practices, but it was a different story once the live bullets started flying against front-line competition in preseason games.

Rattay, meanwhile, stepped in with the second team against Oakland and Denver the past two weeks and calmly produced a quarterback rating of 141.2 in the two games while guiding the Niners to four touchdown drives in less than three quarters of action.

No-brainer, right?

"As far as the quarterback position goes," Nolan said after Tuesday's get-back-to-work practice, "I'm going to adjust the structure as far as the reps go. It'll go to Tim Rattay. Right now, he will be the starting quarterback going into the season. I look for him to perform well. I'm confident in the decision, and that's why I say this will not be a back-and-forth issue."

Rattay was his usual low-key self while talking about regaining the role he was handed last year after the departure of Jeff Garcia, and perhaps never really lost this summer as the new coaching regime checked out how NFL-ready the 21-year-old Smith actually is.

"I've always wanted to start," Rattay said. "I'm excited about being named, but also it's time to go to work and get ready and get going offensively. There's a lot more stuff to work on. (Coaches) sat me down before camp and explained the situation, so I just tried to let that take it's course. I always just worked and prepared myself like I was (No. 1) and understood the rep situation. I've been working hard and got myself healthy, and now I've just got to get myself ready to go."

But when asked how difficult it was to be patient this summer and have to wait his turn again while Smith took over in the first-team huddle, Rattay did let go slightly from his reserved style.

"Yeah, it was tough," he said. "I'd be lying to you if I said it wasn't. You've just got to roll with the punches and go out to play the best you can. The reps I had, I tried to take advantage of them, and when I got in the game, I tried to take advantage of that. So it was hard, but it's not supposed to be easy."

It wasn't necessarily any easy decision for Nolan, because the 49ers have promoted Smith as the fresh new face of the franchise and the entire organization had its fingers crossed that Smith could step in immediately as a top-pick rookie starter ala Peyton Manning or Troy Aikman.

But the 49ers have a real game to play 19 games from today, and Smith was having problems even producing first downs in two exhibition games, completing just five of 16 passes for 43 yards. He was sacked four times, had a quarterback rating of 39.6 and produced zero scoring drives.

"I was pleased with both of them," Nolan said, "but naturally Tim has showed the upper hand when it came to the experience. But the rookie did a very good job for a guy that's had to come out and try to learn as much as he can. He's done everything to prove that we're right in our selection and, going forward in the future, that he'll just get better and better and get closer to having that job.

"But in the meantime, it is Tim's job right now. I'm making this decision because I'm confident in the decision. It's the right decision. Our objective is to win, and that's the reason for the thing."

The competitive Smith appeared a bit downcast at the decision, but he can see where his coach is coming from. He also seemed to realize that having Rattay behind center, at least at the moment, gives the 49ers their best chance to win.

"This is a position I haven't been in in a long time, to be No. 2," Smith said. "You know, it's tough. But coach said it: This team wants to win now. So do I. Tim's experienced, Tim has been playing well. He'll be a great guy to learn from. I don't need to change my mindset. I need to keep working as hard, still need to keep pushing to get better, but it will give me a chance to learn from Tim. I think it would be real easy to just accept the role. That's not what I want to do. I need to keep getting better, I need to keep working hard."

When asked if the decision was a letdown for him, Smith replied, "I don't think a letdown. I know how this works. This is a team game, this is not all about me. For now, absolutely, I understand it. But that doesn't mean I have to accept it. I can keep working for it, keep pushing for this and see what happens."

And, when asked if he was relieved by the decision – particularly since the pressure and spotlight have been beating down on Smith since the moment he arrived in San Francisco – the rook quickly shooed away the suggestion.

"Absolutely not," he said. "Starting (preseason) games and getting different looks … Those were great reps for me. I would not have it any other way. Now, when I get in that situation and that role, it's going to be easy compared to if it had been switched."

But now, when Smith gets in that role, it will be later than many had hoped. You can blame Rattay for that. Or thank him.

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