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Sunday, November 2, 2003
Updated: November 4, 11:45 PM ET
Rattay has 3 TDs in first start

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- Quarterback controversies start innocently. Remember a year ago when Marc Bulger came off the bench, won six of seven starts but then moved aside for Kurt Warner in this year's season opener?

As it turns out, Bulger runs the Rams and Warner's destined to be moved after this season. It's obviously premature to speculate what might evolve from Tim Rattay's three-touchdown, 236-yard performance for an injured Jeff Garcia during Sunday's 30-10 victory over the Rams. Rattay brought a stabilizing calm to the up-and-down nature of the 49ers offense.

Essentially, Rattay turned San Francisco into Three-Calm Park on Sunday in picking apart the Rams.

Tim Rattay
Rattay capped the 49ers' first drive with a TD pass.
"Tim's the kind of guy who doesn't get too high or he doesn't get too low," wide receiver Brandon Lloyd said. "He walks off the field after an interception like he walks off the field (following) a touchdown. He's an even keel guy on run plays or pass plays."

You've probably heard this story before. Bulger was in the same situation a year ago in St. Louis. The Rams were down on their luck. Warner hadn't won a game since the NFC championship following the 2001 campaign. Calm, cool and accurate, Bulger did the unthinkable, rolled off a winning streak and returned the Rams to respectibility. When Warner struggled with hits and a concussion in the season-opening loss to the Giants this year, Bulger was given the next start and is now the franchise quarterback.

But St. Louis is mild compared to San Francisco when it comes to quarterback controversies -- though the 49ers don't quite have one yet.

Rattay pulled the 49ers back into the playoff race with his efficient performance. He completed 19 of 29 passes. He diplomatically distributed the ball to nine different receivers, none catching more than three.

Wide receivers Terrell Owens, Tai Streets and Lloyd each had touchdown receptions and made the ESPN highlights. More importantly, there was no post-game gripping. Egos were placated. The 49ers headed into a bye week with renewed optimism. When healthy, Garcia's the starter. Rattay's the backup.

"When I'm healthy, I'm going to be the guy," Garcia said. "I felt I earned that right. I've proven myself over time. This hasn't been the best year for me, but it's not like I can't turn that around. It's great to see if I can't be the guy out there, we have somebody who can. That was the important fact proven today."

Garcia has a left high-ankle sprain, one that progressively got worse as the week rolled on. Last Monday, he was walking around fine. By Wednesday, the torn or strained ligaments started to part and the pain shot into his lower leg. His status for the Nov. 17 Monday night game against Pittsburgh is uncertain.

49ers coach Dennis Erickson did nothing to promote a potential controversy and neither did Rattay. Erickson praised Rattay as being a backup making his first start who played exceptionally well.

"He's been around here a while and understands the offense. Coach Ted Tollner and coach Greg Knapp have done a great job with Tim bringing him along the past four years," Erickson said. "When you have a backup and he all of a sudden has to step up and play, it shows how much he has listened and how well he has been paying attention."

Rattay didn't look like a quarterback who hadn't started. Cedrick Wilson gave the 49ers early momentum by returning the opening kickoff 95 yards. After a Rams field goal, Rattay opened his first series at San Francisco's 28-yard line. He marched eight plays and 72 yards, hitting three of four passes. He found Owens in the middle of the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown less than nine minutes into the game.

That meant no T.O. tantrums. Rattay was so diplomatic about the way he worked the offense, it's a shame he didn't run in the California recall election.

It's going to be a something that is going to be a natural conversation piece. It's pretty much something that's unavoidable. That's why I don't read your articles or watch your news. I don't need to pay attention.
Jeff Garcia on the looming QB debate

"I just think the main thing in what the coaches and Jeff told me was to just go out and play and not force it," Rattay said. "So, I just tried to let the offense work and find the open receiver and get them the ball. The guys just kept making plays."

Rattay produced three scoring drives -- two for touchdowns in his first four possessions -- while opening an insurmountable 24-3 lead by the second quarter. He worked all the angles and was quick to make adjustments.

Rattay met with the Lloyd along the sideline and was told he was getting single press coverage from Rams cornerback DeJuan Groce. Rattay told him if he saw that again, he'd check to a fade pass. Rattay launched and Lloyd extended himself by making a lunging catch in the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown.

"Tim threw the ball where no one else could get it," Lloyd said. "I just had to track it down."

In the third quarter, he made an audible check at the line and hit Streets with a 5-yard touchdown pass. Rattay did everything well. He converted nine of 13 third downs. He mixed running plays with passing plays and controlled the ball for 35 minutes. Management recognized his ability and gave him a three-game $4.2 million contract extension before the season that locked him up through 2006.

Which brings up the future quarterback controversy. Garcia has a $9.13 million cap number next year that will soar to maybe $13 million because it is supposed to equal the franchise numbers of the league's top five quarterbacks. That number has to be adjusted in negotiation because the 49ers have major cap worries after the season. Though they probably won't re-sign Owens, they have several key defensive players, including linebacker Julian Peterson and cornerback Ahmed Plummer, becoming free agents.

Garcia understands all of this. He grew up in the Bay Area and witnessed the Joe Montana-Steve Young debates. He's 33 and he's having an injury-plagued season. His ankle aches. He has a bulging disc in his back. Many other parts of his body hurt, and despite being a three-time Pro Bowler, Garcia has struggled this season, completing only 54.9 percent of his passes and having a 72 quarterback rating.

"It's going to be something that is going to be a natural conversation piece," Garcia said of the looming Garcia-Rattay debates. "It's pretty much something that's unavoidable. That's why I don't read your articles or watch your news. I don't need to pay attention."

Garcia will turn his attention to rehabbing his left ankle and trying to get ready for the Steelers game. Sometimes, high ankle sprains take 4-6 weeks to heal. Three of his starting offensive linemen have been slowed by them all season.

"The recovery period for them varies," Garcia said of high ankle sprains. "As good as it feels right now, I'm not going to step on the field tomorrow or the next day. Hopefully, there will be some positive recovery time."

Still, the seed has been planted. Rattay is for real. Stay tuned.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.