For five weeks, they were children lost in a mall. They wandered. They plodded. They looked helpless.
For five weeks, they were an engine in need of a tuneup. They sputtered. They spewed. They went nowhere.
For five weeks, the offensive players of the Tampa Bay Bucs were an undelivered promise. They looked slow. They looked undisciplined. Most of all, they looked a lot like third and 17.
Well, what do we have here?
Surprise of all surprises, the wayward offense of the Bucs has returned.
Against the New Orleans Saints, the Bucs offense finally looked dangerous in Sunday's 26-20 victory. Suddenly, they were explosive enough, and they were efficient enough, and they were bold enough. Yeah, that was the offensive firepower that was supposed to give Tampa Bay a chance in the NFC South.
Josh Freeman, making plays and protecting the ball?
Ageless Earnest Graham, wading through another opponent?
Arrelious Benn, streaking downfield toward the end zone?
This was impressive, because the last time anyone saw this offense, it was being buried in the middle of Candlestick Park after putting up a "3" on the scoreboard. Looking back, the only question was how in the world the Bucs managed to score that many. There were too many penalties. Too many turnovers. Too little cohesion.
"We've had some hiccups," Benn said.
"We've expected more from ourselves," Graham said.
Then came Sunday and further proof that one week of bad football doesn't necessarily condemn a team to repeat it the next. This time, the Bucs played with energy and intensity, and they rediscovered the big play. Fifteen times during the game the Bucs gained 10 yards or more.
Kellen Winslow hurdling opponents?
Dezmon Briscoe, sliding to make the game-sealing catch?
Mike Williams, catching a season-high six passes?
Just asking, but where has this been? And now that the Bucs have rediscovered directions to the end zone, can someone put this offensive game plan in a safe place?
"We know we haven't been hitting on all cylinders," said offensive coordinator Greg Olson. "We still have some work to do, but it was exciting to see them come back. We had two ways to go. We could feel sorry for ourselves and get our butts kicked, or we could prepare and learn from our mistakes. I'm glad we played the Saints, because they're a great team, and our players knew they were going to have to focus."
Here's an idea. Why not tell the players that next week's game is against the Saints, too. And that isn't London. It's the French Quarter.
"We didn't play close to our potential," Freeman said. "We played a good game, a game good enough to win, but we left a lot of yards and a lot of points on the field."
That's true. And kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns eventually catches up to a team.
Still, Freeman had his highest quarterback rating of the year (95.9), and he threw for the second-most yards of his career (303). As for the explosive plays that he has been lacking, he hit Benn with a 65-yard touchdown pass and Preston Parker for a 19-yard touchdown pass. Also, he didn't throw an interception.
"He was real focused this week," Olson said. "I think this game meant a lot to him. A lot of people have probably been questioning him. He's a competitor. He just wanted that game. He knew how important it was."
Then there was Graham, who has played for the Bucs, it seems, since the days of black and white television. Graham, old Earn-It Graham, was a player once again, gaining 109 yards in place of the injured LeGarrette Blount. When the Bucs have had success against the Saints, it has been because they have been able to run. For Graham, 31, it was his first 100-yard game since back in 2008.
"That Earnest Graham kid is a pretty good player," said cornerback Ronde Barber.
Also, there was Olson, who realized that a team trying to play the Saints has to press the issue. Otherwise, a team can walk off the field wondering where the lead went.
Consider the last 3:16 of the game, after the Bucs stopped a Saints drive on Quincy Black's end zone interception. The Play-It-Safe Coaches Manual suggests a team runs three dull plays and punts.
Instead, on third and 9, the Bucs were aggressive, and Freeman found a sliding Briscoe for 17. From there, the Bucs ran out the clock.
All in all, it was a fine offensive performance, impressive in its rhythm and its big-play ability. It was the kind of offense that suggests possibilities, that says that the Bucs might be a division contender yet.
Up ahead, there are possibilities.
Who knows? Maybe this offense can get there, after all.