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Diner morning news: Can 49ers reach playoffs?

Their success will depend on QB Alex Smith, not the running game. Michael Lombardi

Print This May 27, 2010, 11:00 AM EST

QUOTE: “I am confirmed in my division of human energies. Ambitious people climb, but faithful people build.” -- Julia Ward Howe

Is this the 49ers year?

Wednesday, on NFL Network’s “Total Access,” we had Mike Singletary on the show to discuss his team and the outlook for the 2010 season. The 49ers finished strong last year, winning their final two games against the Lions and Rams to get to the .500 mark. As a result, many experts suspect this year will be their breakout year — the year they finally become the kind of team Singletary wants and the year they return to the playoffs.

Singletary wanted the 49ers to be a physical team that could run the ball well to control the game. His vision is for them to be the type of physical team that can control the line of scrimmage with the running game and blend in the play action pass for the big play. But last year, the 49ers could not run the ball on first down — or any down for that matter -- and once they got behind in the down-and-distance count, they struggled to be productive on offense. The Niners struggled to overcome any negative plays during a drive — they ranked second in the NFL in allowing sacks on first down, surrendering 18, and led the league in three-and-outs. So when an opposing defense was able to get the 49ers in second or long, or any third and long, a punt was the next play. Third down — especially third and long -- was the 49ers’ offensive nemesis: They were below 30 percent converting all third downs but 17 percent on third and 10 or more, ranking slightly ahead of the Bills for 31st in the NFL. Ouch. Before you think the 49ers can win the West, you better hope they can become more effective making plays in the passing game.

The disconnect for me when talking about the 49ers centers on the philosophy. Can you really be a great running team in the NFL and make a deep run in the playoffs? Yes, I know the Jets did it last year, but they were helped down the stretch (remember Indy lying down?), and even the Jets know they must throw the ball effectively to improve. The Chargers and 49ers were the two worst running teams on first down in the league, but because the Chargers could throw the ball — down the field -- they finished fourth in points scored.

Even if Singletary is able to get the 49ers to become a better running team, will this make them a playoff team? The 49ers must become a better passing team, they must be able to handle the blitz better and they must make plays down the field if they’re going to make a playoff appearance. For all the talk about the 49ers becoming more of a Mike Singletary type of team this year, they might want to spend more time working on a third down package, on their passing game and on their ability to overcome negative plays.

The 49ers are tough, they are physical, they are a Mike Singletary type of team — but Mike must modify his philosophy to fit into today’s game and pass the torch to his quarterback. I have been very critical of 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, but with a better team around him and another year in the same system, this can be his year — at least a make-or-break year. By the end of next season, the 49ers will know if they have their franchise quarterback or if they regret not making the move for former Eagle Donovan McNabb.

If the 49ers make the playoffs, it will be because they have become Alex Smith’s team — not Singletary’s team. Smith must make the difference. He must make the key plays, and he must be the stimulus in the offense. Had they traded for McNabb, they would be a viable Super Bowl contender, but without him, they are hoping to be a viable playoff team — and that viability lies with Smith.

Follow me on Twitter: michaelombardi

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