Rattay, Smith on equal footing as Niners camp opens

Updated: July 31, 2005, 12:36 AM ET
Associated Press

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Tim Rattay and Alex Smith threw the same passes and called the same plays Saturday, each patiently taking his turn in the opening workout of the San Francisco 49ers' training camp.

Coach Mike Nolan says the Niners' starting quarterback and his high-profile replacement will stay on equal footing for at least a little while longer.

Nobody is certain whether No. 1 draft pick Smith will move past Rattay before the start of the regular season, when San Francisco will try to rebuild its respect and fan base following last year's 2-14 debacle.

Though Rattay is atop Nolan's depth chart, Smith led the first-team offense out of the huddle when the 49ers opened camp with a late-afternoon practice. Nolan plans to rotate that job among the four quarterbacks in camp, but Smith conspicuously got the first turn.

"When we took the quarterback, we didn't take him to sit him on the bench," Nolan said. "At some point, he'll be the guy, and I'd like to see if he can do it early. That's not to rule other guys out. It doesn't. It's just that we're going to see. We're going to give him some reps and see if he progresses."

Smith, who signed a six-year, $49.5 million contract earlier in the week, completed several sharp passes, made a few imperfect throws and generally looked good. But so did Rattay, who scrambled with an agility that shows his months of injury concerns finally are behind him.

Regardless of the competition, Rattay and Smith seem to be forming a bond. Rattay and backups Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett have been generous with knowledge and patience while the No. 1 pick tries to take their jobs, and Smith has heaped praise on them.

"I'm out there because I want to win the starting job, but I'm not going to not help Alex out," said Rattay, the son of a football coach. "I'm not out there hoping he does bad. I'm treating him the way Jeff [Garcia] treated me when I came in here."

Rattay was named the 49ers' starting quarterback in March 2004 when the club cut Garcia, a three-time Pro Bowl player, to save money. But Rattay was hurt before training camp and never got healthy, starting just nine games while battling three unrelated injuries.

Rattay could be bitter at the turn of events that landed him in yet another fight for his professional life. But the former record-setting passer at Louisiana Tech is familiar with this struggle, and he won't make it easy for Nolan to promote Smith.

"The way I look at it, last year was the only year since I've been here that I didn't have to compete for a job," Rattay said. "They were always trying to replace me as the backup," rattling off the list of contenders for the roster spot he earned as a seventh-round pick in 2000.

Smith said he felt remarkably comfortable on the first day, and his teammates were impressed his poise during drills. After a record-setting career at Utah and the attention lavished on a top draft pick, Smith still seems ready for the thankless work of camp.

"It felt great to get back out here," Smith said. "I'm not looking into who I came out with. It just felt like forever since I'd been in pads."

Smith repeatedly said he plans to be the starter by opening day, and Nolan hasn't discouraged the aspiration. When the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Carson Palmer with the top overall pick in 2003, he sat out his entire rookie season. But barring injury, it seems safe to say Smith won't wait that long.

"It's not like I'm setting a date on the calendar," Smith said. "My job is to reach my full potential. [Starting the season opener] is a goal I've set for myself, but we'll find out whether that's attainable."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press