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Rattay, Smith on equal footing as Niners camp opens

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."