Tim Rattay is still working on the finer points of being the No. 1 quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. After making the first start of his career Sunday, he stepped up to the locker-room lectern wearing a long-sleeve undershirt, gold game pants and grass-stained tape around the ankles.
And a pair of lace-up, brown leather dress shoes.
"Oh," he said, glancing down at his feet. "I forgot my shower sandals."
Ungainly as the ensemble was, Rattay looked awfully comfortable filling the shoes of injured starter Jeff Garcia, who watched from the sideline as his understudy threw three touchdown passes to lead the 49ers to a 30-10 victory over the St. Louis Rams at 3Com Park.
The Rams, meanwhile, stumbled through four quarters as if they were wearing Rattay's clodhoppers. They managed only nine yards rushing in eight carries and, though they finished with 331 yards passing, did a poor job of protecting Marc Bulger, who was sacked five times and threw two interceptions.
"They do a lot of great things and they just kicked our butts," Bulger said. "We can make excuses about all the missed assignments; they played better."
When Bulger has time, he can pick apart defenses. He's 11-3 as the starting quarterback for the Rams (5-3), and directs the league's top-ranked passing and overall offense. The 49ers were determined to see what he could do with a flood of pressure coming his way.
"When you're right in his face, for whatever reason, he loses his focus," 49er defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said. "I don't know if it's because he's a young quarterback, because he's a heck of a quarterback. He and [Kurt] Warner look like clones. But for whatever reason, he just starts running around and throws the ball. We noticed that, and that's when we attacked."
It's not as if the 49ers (4-5) always handle pressure well themselves. They are 0-4 on the road, where they will play four of their next six games.
A glance at their last three games shows they are as inconsistent as any team in this topsy-turvy league. They delivered a 24-7 pounding of Tampa Bay two weeks ago; suffered a 16-13 overtime loss at Arizona the next week; then defeated the Rams, who had won four consecutive games and five of six (including a 27-24 overtime victory over the 49ers in Week 2).
"There were probably a lot of people out there that didn't think we could win today, particularly as convincing as we did," 49er Coach Dennis Erickson said. "But the players did and the coaches did."
There are a lot of questions surrounding the 49ers but none bigger than the quarterback dilemma. Does the job belong to Garcia, who went to the last three Pro Bowls and is sidelined because of a high left ankle sprain? Or should it stay with Rattay, a seventh-round pick in 2000, who some people think is a better fit for Erickson's stretch-the-field approach?
Garcia should be ready to go in two weeks when the 49ers play host to Pittsburgh in a Monday night game. But it's Rattay who has the hot hand; he had a 138.1 rating -- and a 24-3 lead -- by halftime. His final numbers were more modest: 19 for 29 for 236 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Rattay's personality is as vanilla as they come. He doesn't leave reporters hanging on his every word. He's the son of a coach, and he sounds that way. But his flat-line approach serves him well on the field.
Since 1991, in games started by a backup quarterback the week after the starter went down, the 49ers are 7-0. Before Rattay's victory came wins by Garcia (1999), Ty Detmer (1998), Jim Druckenmiller (1997), Elvis Grbac (1996 and '95) and Steve Bono (1991).
Rattay was quick to point out that Garcia was very supportive of him on the sideline and throughout the week leading up to the game. But quarterback controversies are a way of life in these parts, dating to the divisive saga of Joe versus Steve.
Garcia has struggled through an injury-plagued season. He has eight interceptions to match his eight touchdowns and because of a patchwork offensive line has been running for his life the entire season.
"I'm not going to be the one to try and put this team into a difficult position by being selfish and feeling like I need to rush back from something [if] I'm not ready," Garcia said after the game. "I'm a competitor.... But I also realize if there are any limitations that are taking place, it's just not the right time for me to be out there."
Still, he protected his turf.
"When I'm healthy I'm going to be the guy," he said. "I feel I've earned that right. ... And maybe this year hasn't been the best year for me, but it's not like I can't turn that around."
Pull up a chair. This could get as ugly as dress shoes and ankle tape.