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 he'll have to deal with.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Rattay was quick on his feet, changing plays at the line andthrowing for three scores.