In leading an upset of the Rams, Tim Rattay proved the 49ers have a backup quarterback they can count on
It was the summer of 2000 and rookie Giovanni Carmazzi, a third-round draft choice out of Hofstra and supposedly next in line after the newly retired Steve Young in the 49ers' succession of star quarterbacks, was sitting in his dormitory room at training camp, watching Joe Montana being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on TV. At one point during Montana's speech, fellow rookie passer Tim Rattay, a seventh-round pick out of Louisiana Tech, breezed into the room, grabbed his playbook and mumbled something about going to study before afternoon practice. The moment didn't seem significant at the time, but it does now: Rattay was a pure student of the game, Carmazzi seemed in awe of the NFL environment.
As a backup to free-agent pickup and former CFL standout Jeff Garcia, Carmazzi never took an NFL snap and was waived in July 2002. Meanwhile, Rattay kept studying and working hard, and on Sunday he made his first NFL start. Subbing for an injured Garcia, Rattay led San Francisco to a 30-10 upset of the Rams. He completed 19 of 29 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns, throwing one interception, as the NFC West race tightened up.
In today's NFL the quality of a team's backup quarterback can mean the difference between missing the postseason and winning an NFL title. In 1999, for instance, the Super Bowl-hopeful Jets lost starter Vinny Testaverde with an Achilles injury in Week 1 and finished 8-8 with Rick Mirer and Ray Lucas at quarterback. Two years later Tom Brady took over the Patriots' starting job from Drew Bledsoe in Week 3 and keyed New England's run to the championship. Sometimes a team doesn't know if it has a quality backup until it is forced to use him. San Francisco now knows that it has one.
When the 49ers come off their bye for a Nov. 17 game against Pittsburgh, they will almost certainly start Garcia, who has been banged up all year and sat out on Sunday with a left ankle sprain. However, if Garcia continues to struggle—a 62% passer before this season, he's completing only 55% of his attempts, and his 72.0 passer rating is 18 points below his career mark coming into this year—the Niners shouldn't hesitate to use Rattay.
On Sunday nothing seemed to rattle him as he audibled on two of his three touchdown passes. Leading 17-3 midway through the second quarter, San Francisco had a first down at the St. Louis 27. A running play was called in the huddle, but when Rattay got to the line he saw a safety creeping up, giving the Rams an eighth run-stopping defender in the box. Also, left cornerback Jerametrius Butler was cheating toward the line to jam rookie wideout Brandon Lloyd. "I audibled to an all-go," Rattay said afterward. "They were coming to stop the run, and I knew Brandon would be singled up." Lloyd stutter-stepped off the line and got half a step on Butler, and Rattay threw a rainbow pass to the goal line. Lloyd sprinted under it for the touchdown. "Perfect throw," Lloyd said, "but that's Tim. He's smart enough to throw it where only I can get it."
Rattay's football intelligence comes from being a coach's son; his father, Jim, is a longtime high school coach in Arizona, and Tim grew up watching film with his dad at home. Tim played quarterback for one season in high school, then went to Scottsdale ( Ariz.) Community College in 1995. A year later he moved on to Louisiana Tech ("the only school that would give me a scholarship," he says), where in three seasons Rattay threw for 12,746 yards. But his lack of size (6 feet, 190 pounds) was a big reason he slipped to the seventh round of the draft.
"I just want to play football," Rattay said on Sunday night. "And when I'm done playing, I want to be a coach. All the other stuff, the media and public stuff around the game, I can do without." If he plays many more games like he did against the Rams, Rattay will have a lot more attention that hell have to deal with.
Pitt's Larry Fitzgerald
Will Sophomore Challenge Draft?
NFL scouts are forbidden from commenting publicly on college underclassmen, but that doesn't mean they can't rave about them privately. Last week one scout, who this season has traveled from College Park to Corvallis, said, "No question, the best prospect in college this year is [Pitt wideout] Larry Fitzgerald. He'd easily be the top-rated player in the draft next year if he were eligible."