49ers look for new life with Rattay at controls

Sunday, November 2, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO -- If the San Francisco 49ers hope to stay in the NFC West race, their quarterback change probably must work out just as well as the Rams' move did.

Jeff Garcia isn't expected to play in today's game against St. Louis. His sprained ankle got significantly worse during the week leading up to San Francisco's biggest rivalry game, and team doctors ruled him out Thursday.

Tim Rattay is expected to make his first NFL start. If he needs inspiration from another backup quarterback who excelled in the spotlight, he could look across the field at Marc Bulger. Bulger claimed the starting job from two-time MVP Kurt Warner this season after getting his first chance as an injury replacement.

Nobody expects Rattay to duplicate Bulger's achievements, but Rattay might be a breath of fresh air to an offense that has struggled all season.

"Tim doesn't have to win it by himself -- I mean, that's the key," coach Dennis Erickson said. "We've got other players on this team. Tim will do the things that he can do, and we'll do what we'll do. I think if you ask every player in that locker room, they've got confidence in Tim."

But a change probably couldn't hurt the 49ers. Just when they seemed ready to snap out of their funk after a 24-7 win over Tampa Bay two weeks ago, the Niners played abominably in a 16-13 overtime loss to Arizona. And now Garcia can't play against the surging Rams, whose brilliant offense is back in top form.

What's more, the Rams expect running back Marshall Faulk to return after missing a month with injuries.

Garcia's streak of 61 consecutive starts is expected to end on the same field where San Francisco snapped a six-game losing streak against the Rams last season with a 37-13 victory at Candlestick Park. The 49ers had been chasing their fleet-footed division rivals for three years after dominating the matchup for most of the 1990s.

They rode that momentum to the NFC West title and a trip to the second round of the playoffs, but they have regressed dismally this season under Erickson. San Francisco is 3-5, including a 27-24 overtime loss to the Rams in September.

The 49ers have problems everywhere, from a season-long kicking debacle to Terrell Owens' repeated criticism of teammates. Erickson isn't quite sure what to make of his inconsistent squad, which also seems to have a team morale lower than Garcia's passer rating.

But Erickson might do well to emulate St. Louis coach Mike Martz, who had many of the same problems last season when the Rams slumped after reaching the previous Super Bowl.

"I know I was very hard on the team when we were losing," Martz said. "Coaches get frustrated, but you have to identify what is going on. For us, we just weren't doing the little things well. We weren't playing with the pizazz and enthusiasm that was the trademark. We just weren't making plays.

"We left it at that, and the leadership of the team really stepped up and got it going."

That might be a problem for the 49ers. Owens, arguably their most talented player, is disliked by many teammates, and San Francisco seems to have few vocal leaders.

Making matters worse, they must face one of their most daunting foes. Aeneas Williams, the Rams' cornerback-turned-safety, has long been a problem for the 49ers -- ever since he ended Steve Young's career with a crushing hit while playing for the Cardinals.

"With Terrell, he does a fantastic job with yards after the catch," Williams said. "One of the things that we have to do when he does catch the ball is get to him as fast as possible. ... He plays physical. That's why you have to be prepared to play physical, as well."

St. Louis is 5-2 and back in its customary spot atop the standings with the NFC's most prolific offense. The Rams have scored 203 points despite the prolonged absence of Faulk, who's missed four games with a broken hand and a sore knee.

"I would think he would be in a position to play quite a bit," Martz said. "Obviously, we are going to be very guarded about how much he plays in the first game. We'll just feed him a little more and more as we go."

San Francisco's secondary had two reserves forced into starting roles. Mike Rumph has improved slowly while filling in for injured cornerback Jason Webster, while practice-squadder John Keith is expected to start at safety; Zack Bronson and Ronnie Heard are injured.

At least the 49ers have a familiarity with the Rams' offense, even if that familiarity has resulted in eight losses in the last nine meetings.

"There's not much we haven't seen from them before," defensive tackle Bryant Young said. "We know how good they are. The good thing is that we haven't played nearly as well as we can this season. We can only go up."

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