Much better Blue

JIM BENDER AND KIRK PENTON -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 11:50 AM ET

Some prognosticators predicted the Blue Bombers would be lucky to win even one of their first six CFL games this season.

Well, Winnipeg has reached the midway point with a 5-4 record -- already as many wins as they had all last year -- and the Bombers still aren't happy.

"We're still above .500 and that's probably still three or four games better than people had predicted for us at this point," said Bombers tailback Charles Roberts. "We're good but it's a pride thing. We believe we're the best team, we're just not doing it right now."

The Bombers may have dropped their last two games but this is a far, far better outfit than the one that graded out last season with a D. To this point, the Blue have improved to a C-plus in the Sun's semi-annual report card.

Here are the Bombers grades to date:

QUARTERBACKS: D

Kevin Glenn gets a B for leading the Bombers to a 5-2 record before suffering a knee injury and his absence has really proven his worth to the team. He finished the first half by completing 123 of 211 passes (58.3%) for 1,865 yards and nine touchdowns, with six interceptions. Glenn also showed signs of improving rapidly under new head coach Doug Berry's guidance.

But this grade drops because of the F's given to the backups. Mike Quinn was deplorable in his first CFL start; Brad Banks has done little to earn his $100,000 salary; and Russ Michna -- who was cut but brought back when Quinn got hurt -- looked completely lost the last time he played.

RUNNING BACKS: A

You cannot fault Charles Roberts for failing to lead the CFL in rushing at the halfway point if the team refuses to exploit his talents, especially when both Glenn and slotback Milt Stegall are out with injury. Roberts was still second in that race to the midway point with 741 yards and four touchdowns on 149 carries. Roberts also has 21 catches for 277 yards. Both Graeme Bell and Henri Childs had their moments when filling in at tailback. And both Bell and Scott Regimbald have been solid at fullback, even lining up as tight ends on occasion.

The Bombers have also done a much better job of converting short-yardage situations this year.

RECEIVERS: C

Once again, Stegall gets an A for leading the CFL before he got hurt (ribs) but this grade is brought down by the rest of the receiving corps -- especially with Stegall out. Not one of the other receivers stepped up in his absence. And that includes veteran wide receiver Chris Brazzell, who dropped three passes, including a sure TD toss, against Hamilton. But he wasn't the only one with butterfingers. And we are still waiting for breakout games from either Andrae Thurman or Quentin McCord. With Robert Baker on his way here, the import receivers should be spending the bye week biting their fingernails to the quick.

Offensive co-ordinator Mike Gibson does not escape blame here, either, as ignoring the team's most sure-handed receiver, Jamie Stoddard, is unforgivable.

The Bombers also need more from Henri Childs, Albert Johnson III and Arjei Franklin when they are in there.

OFFENSIVE LINE: B

The Hogs weren't very good the last two weeks when the Bombers needed them so badly to protect the backup QBs. But they have still opened enough holes for Roberts to challenge for the rushing lead. They have also held opponents to 19 sacks, which is about middle of the pack in the CFL. But these guys held up even after the Bombers lost import tackle Dan Goodspeed -- who was the team's best O-lineman this year -- and Matt Sheridan -- the team's top Hoggie last year -- to injury. Kudos to Jermese Jones and Aaron Fiacconi, although Fiacconi lost his starting status when import tackle Belton Johnson played against B.C. Marc Parenteau has also shown some upside.

DEFENSIVE LINE: A

This would have been an A-plus two games ago but that vaunted front four came crashing down to Earth versus Hamilton two weeks ago and still allowed the Lions 136 yards rushing on Thursday.

Yet, Doug Brown, Tom Canada, Gavin Walls and Ron Warner have accounted for 17 of Winnipeg's league-leading 27 quarterback sacks, including seven from Canada. Opponents seem to be designing their offensive game plans around solving these guys -- which Hamilton did quite successfully last time out.

Both backups Jon Oosterhuis and Cameron Legault have also filled in admirably.

LINEBACKERS: B-plus

MLB Barrin Simpson has simply been the best free agent signing of the off-season. Hands down. Not only does he lead the CFL with 54 defensive tackles, he inspires the Bombers defence with a passion that reminds observers of Greg Battle. Heck, even when B.C. beat the Bombers 32-5, Simpson recorded 12 defensive tackles, picked off a pass and had a sack.

Until he was hampered by an injury, converted defensive back Ike Charlton had been outstanding at a newly-created LB/DB type of position. Both Charlton and Donnavan Carter have been guilty of a lot of missed tackles lately. Carter, however, is second in team defensive tackles and has two interceptions.

Backup LB Neil McKinlay, when healthy, gets a lot of playing time and has been solid.

This group, however, has surprisingly few sacks.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: A

This group has enjoyed the most dramatic turnaround of any others after posting an F-minus last season, when the secondary surrendered the most passing yards in CFL history. The Bombers headed into this weekend with the best average yards passing against in the league.

Both Anthony Malbrough and Kelly Malveaux have filled gigantic holes at defensive back while Stanford Samuels has been outstanding while starting at corner. CB Omar Evans was the only bright spot last year and he has continued that solid play.

Converted LB Ron Ockimey has not looked out of place at safety while big things are expected of S/LB Kyries Hebert.

Robert Bean, Gabriel Fulbright and Ian Logan have also been capable backups.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C-plus

Once they finally settled on Troy Westwood as the punter, the Bombers have gotten what they needed from him. And that has not hampered his placekicking, which has actually improved.

Graeme Bell has been a terror on special teams, leading the CFL in those tackles until recently, with Shawn Gallant on his heels and Kyries Hebert closing in rapidly.

Although we are still waiting for him to bust out, Johnson headed into the weekend as the CFL's leading punt returner and was fourth in kickoff returns. He also runs forward instead of backwards like some of the more recent frustrating kick returners here.

But there are still far too many penalties on special teams.

COACHING, PERSONNEL AND MANAGEMENT: B-plus

New head coach Doug Berry has ignited renewed confidence in this outfit that was so sorry last season. But for the last two games when he lost his starting QB and best receiver, Berry and his staff would have earned an A.

Berry, however, deserves some blame for not using Roberts more and ignoring players like Stoddard, and his faith in Mike Quinn is curious, to say the least. Yet, he is a straight shooter and an early candidate for CFL coach of the year.

GM Brendan Taman hired Berry and signed Barrin Simpson, Kyries Hebert, Ron Warner and Johnson as free agents, acquired Kelly Malveaux and Anthony Malbrough in trades, and claimed such players as OL Obby Khan and Val St. Germain and Donnavan Carter in the Ottawa dispersal draft. However, ex-NFL RB Onterrio Smith was a fat bust and so are the backup QBs.

Upper management deserves credit for freeing up some cash to sign players like Simpson as Winnipeg prepares to host the Grey Cup.

HOW THEY STACK UP

A: Top of the league

B: Better than most

C: Average

D: Hit the books

F: Worst in the CFL


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