If Garcia's healthy, he starts

Updated: November 3, 2003, 9:34 PM ET
Associated Press

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers have no quarterback controversy.

So says coach Dennis Erickson.

Try telling that to the fans and teammates who have two weeks to ponder what Tim Rattay might do for an encore to his impressive debut as an NFL starter.

Filling in for injured Jeff Garcia, Rattay went 19-of-29 for 236 yards and three touchdowns in San Francisco's revitalizing 30-10 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.

Garcia, the 49ers' starter since 1999, has been erratic and ineffective this season -- and he isn't sure his severely sprained ankle will be back to full strength when the 49ers (4-5) return from their bye week to face the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 17.

"If Jeff is healthy and he can move around like he can move around, he'll be the starting quarterback," said Erickson, who gave his team a full week off Monday. "It's as simple as that."

That's a big if, however: Garcia has been limited by injuries since hurting his back during an offseason workout, and his longtime backup stepped in without a hitch. The 49ers' definition of full health could differ from Garcia's ideas, because the undersized quarterback has played with injuries throughout his career.

But among the people whose opinions really count, there's no animosity or uncertainty. Garcia and Rattay are close friends, and both believe Garcia is the unquestioned starter.

"When I'm healthy, I'm going to be the guy. I think I've earned that right," Garcia said. "By the same token, I'm not going to be the person that's going to put this team in a difficult position by being selfish. ... (A controversy) is something that's going to be a natural conversation piece. It's pretty much unavoidable."

Few teams can match the 49ers' quarterback lineage -- and few towns enjoy a quarterback controversy more than San Francisco. Rattay became the seventh straight backup quarterback to win his first start for the 49ers in a streak dating back to Steve Young's first start in place of Joe Montana in 1990.

Garcia started 61 straight games for the 49ers before Sunday, making the last three Pro Bowls while passing for 15,227 yards since 1999. The Bay Area native's reckless but intelligent playing style has propelled him to NFL stardom despite his average size and arm strength.

Rattay is even an inch shorter than the 6-foot-1 Garcia, but the former seventh-round draft pick has a stronger arm and more traditional skills. He has excelled as a pocket passer in the West Coast offense after learning the game at Louisiana Tech, where he finished his career second in NCAA history with 12,746 yards passing.

"Not having started in so long, I was kind of trying to remember how it felt to do that," Rattay said. "I was really excited and really looking forward to it. There was a little nervousness, but after that first snap, you're just playing football like you're done since you were little."

After beating the Rams, Rattay's coaches praised his decision-making and aggressiveness -- typically two areas in which inexperienced quarterbacks struggle.

He also was confident making audibles at the line. Two of his touchdown passes involved improvisation: rookie Brandon Lloyd's diving 27-yard TD catch shortly before halftime, and Tai Streets' exceptional leaping 5-yard grab in the third quarter.

After watching film Monday morning, even Rattay didn't have many complaints about his work. Neither did his coaches.

"He didn't make any mistakes," Erickson said of Rattay. "You always worry about somebody in his first start, and he didn't do it. You practice to be the guy, and when your time comes you're ready to go, and he was."

The 49ers must make a second-half surge to remain in contention for their third straight trip to the playoffs, Garcia and Rattay agree the quarterback must lead it -- whoever that may be.

"It's one game, and you can't get overly excited," Rattay said. "Just like one bad game doesn't make a career."


Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press