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Where Do we Go From Here?
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As the 2003-2004 season came to a disappointing close for the 49ers, the organization worked to establish a new plan for the team. The team had hoped that the addition of head coach Dennis Erickson to replace Steve Mariucci would push them over the top. In stead, they tumbled into oblivion. Shortly after the season ended, the team parted ways with both the offensive and defensive coordinators, among other coaching members, and suddenly, the team was left with a high salary cap figure, depleted coaching staff, lots of free agents, a very little hope for the future.

As the off-season progressed, the team parted ways with starting quarterback Jeff Garcia, and chose not to pursue starting receivers Terrell Owens or Tai Streets. Other veterans departed too, including Garrison Hearst, Derrick Deese, Ron Stone, Jason Webster, Jed Weaver, Chidi Ahanatou, and Travis Kirschke. The status of stellar linebacker Julian Peterson remains up in the air too.

The team was clearly in need of help. Slowly, a coaching staff was re-assembled. Some of the additions were welcomed by the fans, others were less inspiring considering the shoes that were left to fill. Tim Rattay was declared the team’s starting quarterback. Some moves were made along the offensive line to shore up the depth, and the team had a really positive draft (at least on paper).

Things were not necessarily bright in 49ers land, but at the least, a clear path was indicated and followed, and it appeared that the team had a plan. There was controversy, sure, as fans questioned coaching staff, players, depth, and even who should be the teams starting quarterback. But at least there was a plan.

On the first day of the team’s first mini-camp starting quarterback Tim Rattay was injured. His torn groin muscle will take between three and four months to heel, and once again the 49ers find themselves in turmoil. Should the team pursue a starting veteran quarterback? What about a backup veteran quarterback? Is Ken Dorsey the second year player ready to lead the team? If not, will his development be hindered or improved by being thrown into action? What happens when Rattay is healthy again?

Inferences made based on Tim Rattay’s contract and based on what coaches and front office personnel have said about Ken Dorsey lead many to believe he would be starting either next year, or the following one. While no one has flat out admitted it, Tim Rattay was seen as a band-aid while the team scrambled to find their next candidate who they could depend on long term for the position. Sure, had Rattay turned out to be a great one, he would have held onto his position, but the direction of the team did not seem to be banking on that happening.

With Rattay’s injury, the plan has been altered. The most logical choice for the team though; the choice closest to the already established plan is to let Ken Dorsey start. Bringing in a veteran quarterback would not only burn holes into the 49ers salary cap dilemma, but it would also hinder the development of three young and promising quarterbacks on the roster. With Rattay’s injury, Dorsey in particular will receive lots of work this off-season to aid in his development… and should a replacement be needed, Brandon Doman must know the offense well enough to get by at this point.

Playing Dorsey makes sense. He will have worked with the first team all off-season, and the team will be used to having him behind center and leading. By the time Rattay returns, he will be rusty, out of practice, possibly out of shape, and certainly will not have the team chemistry that Dorsey will have built up over the summer. And so Dorsey should start the season.

Playing in the regular season will allow Dorsey to really start progressing in his development. Perhaps more importantly the team will be able to genuinely evaluate what they have in this former 7th round draft pick. If he takes the torch and runs with it, the 49ers may never look back. And if he falters, the team should not be quick to pull the plug. First year quarterbacks rarely have immediate success in the NFL, and so if Dorsey is struggling the team needs to ask itself: “are the struggles because he’s a first year quarterback, and are we seeing progress and promise despite these struggles, or are the struggles because Dorsey is not cut out to start in this league.” If the answer is that that given more time, Dorsey will be a good starting quarterback, the team should let him play. Sitting on the bench and learning from Tim Rattay is not at all like sitting on the bench behind a guy like Montana or Young and learning. The best way Dorsey can get acclimated to the NFL, is to play. Of course if after seeing Dorsey play, and struggle the team realizes he is not the future at quarterback for the 49ers, Tim Rattay should be given as genuine a shot as Dorsey was given at that point, and that point only.

It does not make sense to give Rattay the starting quarterback job as soon as he comes back from injury, because he doesn’t have much of any pro-experience. He is missing his first off-season as a starting quarterback, and in all likelihood, is not the quarterback who would give the team the best chance to win at the start of the season. I have enough confidence in Rattay and Doman to be backups, so much so that I do not think signing a veteran to handle these duties makes any sense. I feel for Rattay, I really do, as he may have missed out on the opportunity of a life time. But once Dorsey starts the season, whether he is immediately successful or not, he needs to be given a genuine opportunity (possibly as long as two years) to prove whether or not he is cut out for the position, just as Rattay would have been given that genuine opportunity.

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