TAMPA — Josh Freeman's right thumb still is broken, but his confidence is much harder to shatter.
In Sunday's 17-14 win over the Browns, there were two late passes — to two different receivers with two different results — that defined the Bucs quarterback's opening day.
On the first, Freeman spotted rookie Mike Williams wide open near the goal line. But the football squirted out of his hand and did everything but quack, fluttering high over Williams' head and denying a certain touchdown.
"He was just … so … wide … open," Freeman said. "I overthrew him. It should've been an easy touchdown. I apologized to Mike because … that should've been his touchdown.
"There are no freebies or do-overs because you have a broken thumb."
But on Freeman's next pass, facing an all-out blitz two plays later and the Bucs trailing 14-10, he feathered a tight spiral 33 yards that Micheal Spurlock cradled like an egg in the end zone for the winning touchdown.
"He's unflappable," said cornerback Ronde Barber, whose 64-yard interception return late in the first half turned the game around.
"He's got that laid-back demeanor. His attitude is great for the position. Nothing fazes him. His next opportunity is his next snap, and he takes it that way."
It was the Bucs' first win in a season opener since 2005, even though only 41,554 were in attendance at the 65,000-seat Raymond James Stadium (with paid attendance announced at 47,211). It was the Bucs' first blacked out home game since 1997.
Freeman, who fractured the tip of the thumb on his throwing hand in the second preseason game, admitted he was a little nervous heading into the game. He had seen limited practice time and was held out Wednesday to allow the swelling and soreness to abate.
"Obviously, there's an element of anxiety not having played for about three weeks and getting about one week of practice — not even real reps," Freeman said. "But I've got a lot of confidence in my athletic abilities and my ability to play quarterback. My teammates did a great job of keeping my confidence up. I just really leaned on them for support. It was awesome."
Specifically, Freeman leaned on the Bucs defense, which forced three fumbles — recovering one deep in its territory early in the third quarter — and intercepted Jake Delhomme twice.
Trailing 14-3 and with Cleveland at the Tampa Bay 39, the 35-year-old Barber stepped in front of Delhomme's sidearm pass intended for tight end Ben Watson.
In his younger days, Barber would have taken the interception to the house. This time, he ran out of gas and collapsed in the driveway.
"I'm just not a young man anymore," Barber said. "It was a hot day."
Nonetheless, Barber's pick changed the game.
On first and goal from the Browns 3, Freeman squeezed a pass to Williams in the end zone with cornerback Sheldon Brown draped behind him. Williams got his fingers on the ball, tipped it skyward, caught it on the rebound and got his toes inbounds for the score.
"I tipped it. I knew exactly where I tipped it, too," Williams said. "I ran right to the back of the end zone, and it fell into my hands. It felt good. I knew I had to get two feet in."
Freeman was one of the first players to reach Williams for the celebration.
"I just said, 'Thanks, man. You bailed me out of one,' " Freeman said.
Despite looking rusty, Freeman finished 17-of-28 for 182 yards, two touchdowns and one interception for a passer rating of 88.7.
But the pass he missed to Williams allowed the Bucs to believe they are right on target about Freeman becoming a franchise quarterback.
"It was almost funny," running back Cadillac Williams said. "I was in the huddle. And the way he looked, it was almost like he (successfully) made the throw. He was still confident he was going to make that throw. That's a sign of greatness. You don't want guys who make mistakes and hang their head. Josh Freeman is not that type of guy."
On third and 10 from the Cleveland 33, Freeman knew he was going to get an all-out blitz from coordinator Rob Ryan. Spurlock beat Florida rookie Joe Haden, who grabbed him on the play.
"I'm grinning when the ball goes up," Spurlock said. "You know he's going to try to run through and try to make a play on the ball. I just caught it, and the rest is history."
Rick Stroud can be reached at email@example.com.
The defense's turning point
How much did Ronde Barber's 64-yard interception return spark the Bucs defense? Before it, the defense gave up 14 points and 197 yards. After it, no points and 118 yards. The Browns' post-interception series with plays, net yards, first downs and result:
4311End of game