MIAMI — The strange, new feeling hung in the air, and in the South Florida afternoon, as if you could reach up and grab it. At the moment, it was as tangible, and as real, as the football that floated toward Maurice Stovall's hands.
It was called "a chance."
And thanks to the new kid at quarterback, everyone associated with the Tampa Bay Bucs has one.
Rookie quarterback Josh Freeman started his second game for the Bucs on Sunday afternoon, and, once again, he brought hope. Two games in and, evidently, this is what Freeman does. He allows everyone around him to believe. Two games in and the Bucs look like a different team, and the season has a different feel.
Two games in and the NFL no longer looks as if it is simply too big for the Bucs.
True, the Bucs lost Sunday, 25-23 to Miami. Right after they managed to come from behind, the Bucs quickly fell from ahead, and they lost their eighth game in nine tries. It is understandable if the collapse leaves you somewhat annoyed.
But ask yourself: Didn't this game feel different from the first seven losses of the year? Didn't it finally feel like a team making progress instead of being locked in a basement? Didn't it finally feel as if Tampa Bay had lost a game but had rediscovered a direction?
This is what Freeman has done for the Bucs. He has allowed them to believe that victory is at least possible.
In two games, that is Freeman's biggest contribution to Tampa Bay. Suddenly, the franchise doesn't look so hopeless.
Can this team win again this year? If so, it is because of Freeman. Will coach Raheem Morris and his staff get another year? If so, it is because of Freeman. Can this franchise indeed find its way back to the world of the respectable? If so, it is because of Freeman.
No, Freeman wasn't perfect against Miami. For 2½ quarters, he wasn't very good. He fumbled four times — two times on center exchanges, once on a sack, once on a shotgun snap that went through his hands. He took too much time to make some of his throws. His rating was only 31.9.
"Disastrous" is the way Morris summed up Freeman's first half. "He did everything wrong you could do wrong, fumbled snaps to just everything."
Ah, but in the second half, Freeman was the outstanding presence everyone had seen in last week's debut. One week after leading the Bucs from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter, he led his team from 13 points down at halftime and 10 points down in the final quarter.
Say what you want to about completion percentage, and debate all you want about the silly quarterback ratings system. The way a quarterback should be weighed is his ability to turn a deficit into a lead, in the confidence he instills in his teammates, in the plays he makes when they matter the most.
If two games are any indication, Freeman has some of that. Maybe a lot of it.
"Wow," running back Cadillac Williams said. "Just to see the growth and the pressure moments where he's as calm as a 10-year vet. … I know it's a dark day for us, but with that guy at the helm, the future is bright for this organization. He's the real deal."
Said wide receiver Michael Clayton: "He's awesome right now. We're a better football team because he's on it."
In the fourth quarter, for instance, Freeman hit Stovall for a 33-yard touchdown, had a ball bounce off Stovall's hands that would have given the team first and goal at the 1, then had a 14-yard run that highlighted a drive for the go-ahead touchdown with 74 seconds to play.
"When he got the ball back with some clock left, the whole sideline felt like he could do it," Morris said. "And he did."
Said offensive coordinator Greg Olson: "When you step on the field, you feel you have a chance to score with this guy."
Soon, this will be Freeman's team. You can feel that, too. Right now, he is still a kid playing catch-up, and there are rough edges to his game. But he has so much poise, and so much promise, that you feel that will change, too.
Nothing seems to rattle the kid, not a deficit on the scoreboard, not a wretched call by the officials that, somehow, ended up as an interception for him, not a day where it seems he starts out of synch.
"I tell you what, the kid is going to be good," Dolphins outside linebacker Jason Taylor said. "I could be wrong, but in my opinion, he's going to be a really, really good quarterback. He's got tremendous poise for a young guy, he has tremendous size, and he moves around looking to throw the ball downfield, and still checking down, and running for the first down. I've got respect for the young kid."
That feeling is growing, too. The Bucs are onto something with Freeman. No, he does not have the look of a one-hit wonder.
Just as impressively, Freeman does not have the sound of a player who is overly impressed with what he has done in two weeks. His helmet still fits, in other words.
"I feel pretty miserable right now because of the loss," Freeman said. "You hate to lose, and that's the only thing on my mind. People can say I played well, but it wasn't good enough."
Will it be enough next week? Or the week after that? Or the one after that?
With Freeman, the Bucs have a chance.
At 1-8, that beats having none at all.