WINNIPEG - The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are the surprise of the CFL season at its midway point, jumping out to a league-best 7-2 record and a four-point lead in the East Division over the Montreal Alouettes and Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The Bombers last season told anyone who would listen that they were a good 4-14 football team, and the brass backed up that belief by making very few off-season changes.
The result has been one of the best starts in franchise history.
There are still a few warts, however, and some aspects of the team need to improve if the Bombers are going to keep their lofty status.
Here is the Blue and Goldís mid-season report card:
The good news for the Blue and Gold is Buck Pierce has remained relatively healthy through nine games.
The bad news is he hasnít lit it up on a consistent basis like he did at the start of 2010.
Pierceís quarterback rating is in the middle of the pack, and he has thrown only 10 touchdown passes in nine games.
He is, however, putting points on the board at key moments of games, so he gets bonus points for that.
Running backs (D)
LaPolice has said a billion times this season the No. 1 goal for opposing defences is to stop Fred Reid. Well, now the No. 1 goal for the Bombers is to find a way to get Fred Reid going.
Yes, Reid is among the league leaders when it comes to rushing yards, but no one has carried the ball more so he should be up there. The problem is his paltry 3.9-yard average per carry, which has to be troubling for all involved.
The Bombers still have faith in Reid, and itís not all his fault, but this area has to improve.
Offensive line (C-)
The below-average grade is a result of Reidís rushing troubles. The team says the problem is half Reid, half the offensive line, so they both need to hit the books a little more.
The holes just donít seem to be as large as they once were, and Reidís longest run of the season is only 20 yards. Last year at this time he had a 50-yarder.
Though not always the O-lineís fault, the 21 sacks allowed puts it on pace to give up 42 this season.
This yearís receiving corps is much improved over a year ago, and it is doing what it can considering the current state of Winnipegís run game.
Terence Jeffers-Harris canít even get in the lineup, thatís how talented this yearís pass catching crew is. Cory Watson and Kito Poblah have shown they are bona fide non-import talents, and veteran Terrence Edwards, despite dealing with nagging injuries and an early case of the dropsies, is on pace for another 1,000-yard season.
Rookie Clarence Denmark, meanwhile, catches every ball thrown his way.
Defensive line (A)
The mayor of Swaggerville, Odell Willis, leads the way with nine sacks. Rookie Kenny Mainor, who has been a surprise at the other defensive end position, has six.
Doug Brown, who will turn 37 at the end of September, is still going strong in the middle, and Bryant Turner has filled in admirably for the injured Dorian Smith.
The Bombers are the CFLís third-best team against the run, and 24 of their league-leading 30 sacks have come from defensive line players.
Rejuvenated middle linebacker Joe Lobendahn has been a force this season, twice being named the defensive player of the week.
He has 31 tackles, three fumble returns, two sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and even a pass knockdown.
Most impressive, however, are his five tackles for a loss in nine games. That is outstanding.
Weak-side linebacker Marcellus Bowman is coming into his own in his sophomore season, and Clint Kent is his usual steadying presence on the strong side.
Swaggerville founder Lenny Walls is no longer with the team, but the defensive backs are no doubt making him proud with their play.
Jonathan Hefney has knocked down a whopping nine passes in nine games and has two picks. Cornerbacks Jovon Johnson and Brandon Stewart both have three interceptions, while safety Ian Logan and halfback Alex Suber both have one.
The Bombers have given up the fewest passing touchdowns, the fewest passing yards and the fewest yards overall. Considering this is still a passing league, no group does it better than these guys.
Return teams (F)
The Bombers donít have the leagueís worst punt and kickoff return averages, but theyíre close. Putting them in the basement of this category is the fact they are the CFLís runaway leaders in illegal blocks.
Deon Beasley and Jovon Johnson are the primary kickoff and punt returners, but the coaching staff is considering making changes for the stretch drive. Considering those two both play in the secondary, itís time to make that move.
Cover teams (B)
A season after being the leagueís worst, they are almost the best in 2011.
Last year the cover teams didnít do much covering, allowing six return touchdowns. So far this year they have given up none.
Not only that, but they have surrendered only three ďbig playsĒ by CFL standards ó returns of more than 30 yards (on punts and missed field goals) or 40 yards (on kickoffs).
The punt cover team is allowing a stingy 7.7 yards per return.
No placekicker has missed more field goals than Justin Palardy, whose 75% success rate is below the league average.
Mike Renaud, meanwhile, is in the middle of the pack when it comes to punting average (43.2 yards), but he seems to have trouble making decent contact and is three yards off his average at this point last season.
Coaching, management (A)
Head coach Paul LaPolice made several in-game errors last season, but he has been primarily mistake-free this season.
He has also done a good job of preventing his playersí heads from getting too big during their hot start.
The best off-season move was bringing in Tim Burke as defensive co-ordinator, and the staff has come together after the tragic loss of Richard Harris.
Meanwhile, GM Joe Mack, assistant GM Ross Hodgkinson and director of player personnel Ken Moll keep bringing in the talent.
The coaching staff needs to improve the offence and the return game, but itís tough to argue with 7-2.
Making the grade
A ó Top of the league
B ó Better than most
C ó Average
D ó Hit the books
F ó Worst in the CFL