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It was not long after Jeff Garcia had guided the San Francisco 49ers past their Bay Area rivals Sunday afternoon that one of his ardent admirers began to pour on the praise.

"That was as good as Steve Young, Joe Montana or anybody else," Bill Walsh said after the 49ers' 23-20 overtime victory over the Oakland Raiders.

Walsh, now a 49ers front-office consultant, is better known as the architect of the West Coast offense and much of the franchise's success. So when the 70-year-old puts Garcia in the company of Montana and Young, he does not do so lightly.

Four years into an NFL career that almost never was, Garcia, 32, has established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. When he threw the 1,500th pass of his career earlier this season, Garcia qualified for the all-time rankings. Using the yardstick that most accurately measures quarterbacks -- passer rating -- his 91.9 mark trails only three players: Kurt Warner of the St. Louis Rams (99.9), and former 49ers Young (96.8) and Montana (92.3).

"I take it all with somewhat of a grain of salt," said the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Garcia. "Hopefully, I'm never going to change as a person. . . . I'm still a very low-key, humble person in so many ways.

"But I do take some of the honors and somewhat laugh about them in a sense, but it's fun, and I think what's exciting about it is that people are acknowledging my presence on the football field and off the football field."

Garcia took a circuitous route to this acknowledgment. Undrafted from San Jose State, he toiled for five seasons with Calgary of the Canadian Football League, leading the Stampeders to the Grey Cup in 1998.

After that season, he went for a round of workouts with NFL teams, but the only contract offers came from the Miami Dolphins and 49ers. Garcia jumped at the chance to join a team so near to his home town of Gilroy, arriving just as concussions were about to end Young's career in 1999.

That year, the 49ers were in transition after Young got hurt. They lost 11 of their final 12 games and their status as a perennial playoff team. It was in this difficult environment that Garcia had to show he belonged in the NFL.

"He had to prove to us, on a 4-12 team, that he had enough mojo to take this team," Coach Steve Mariucci said. "He had to go through a tough season to prove that, which really showed us that he had some resiliency and he had some thick skin and he had some mental toughness."

Garcia put up respectable numbers in 1999. In 2000, he played well enough to make the Pro Bowl even though the 49ers finished 6-10. Last year, the 49ers returned to the playoffs, and Garcia returned to the Pro Bowl.

Then, he spent his offseason enjoying the spoils of NFL life that nearly had eluded him -- cavorting from one high-profile function to the next, from a People Espanol Top 25 fete in New York to a visit to the White House to a trip to Japan to promote the 49ers' preseason game against the Washington Redskins.

"I had to take advantage of the opportunities last offseason," Garcia said. "I don't know how many years I have left in the NFL."

This year, the 49ers are 6-2, comfortably leading the NFC West and casting an eye toward their first trip to the Super Bowl in eight years. Garcia is as big a reason as any. He has a quarterback rating of 94.5 this season, second in the NFC, and he has thrown only four interceptions. Just as significant is his mobility, which allows him to run for yardage if receivers are covered, or to throw on the move. When he has been forced out of the pocket, Garcia has completed 34 of 46 passes for 429 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.

"You couldn't ask for anything more from any of the quarterbacks we ever had," Walsh said. "It's just incredible, the poise and presence he has. He makes instinctive decisions that parallel [Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett] Favre, Young, Montana -- those kinds of players."

Jeff Garcia, who spent five years in Canadian Football League, has thrown San Francisco to the top of the NFC West.