TAMPA — The quarterback smacked his hand on the helmet of a pass rusher, and you figured it was the head coach who winced.
The quarterback stood on the sideline gingerly holding the thumb on his throwing hand, and you assumed it was the general manager who was holding back tears.
The quarterback walked away from the game, and you wondered if the guy in charge of selling Buccaneers tickets in 2010 was looking for an exit of his own.
So this is what it means to employ a franchise quarterback?
Josh Freeman fractures the tip of his thumb in the first quarter of a preseason game Saturday night, and the Bucs immediately go on life support. Hope is bruised, and the only shred of optimism is completely wrapped in tape.
The official word is that Freeman will be ready for the season opener three weeks from today, and I suppose that is a best-case scenario. He probably won't play in any more preseason games and may not practice again until early September.
So tell me this: If a quarterback is lost during a television blackout, does the season make a sound?
Sure, it could have been worse. It could have been a cast Freeman was wearing late Saturday instead of a splint wrapped tightly in tape. It could have involved ligament damage, and it could have required surgery.
Even Freeman, when he first heard the word fracture, feared that his season was slipping away.
"They saw me freaking out. I was acting like, 'Oh my God,' and they immediately said, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, it's not too bad. Don't worry, it could be worse,' " Freeman said. "They told me that it happened above the ligament, so I've still got the range of motion in my thumb. From everything they said, this should be pretty minor."
Considering Brett Favre once broke his thumb in the middle of October and returned after a bye week to take the Packers to the playoffs without missing a single game, it's certainly conceivable that Freeman will be back in the lineup come Sept. 12.
But the sight of him returning to the sideline in a T-shirt and gauze during the first few minutes of the third quarter Saturday was the most obvious sign yet of how much this 22-year-old quarterback means to Tampa Bay.
If Freeman is not under center, does anyone have faith in this season?
Does anyone have expectations for the offense? Does anyone have happy thoughts about the young receivers?
Um, does anyone have Jeff Garcia's phone number?
To be fair, backup Josh Johnson looked as good as we have ever seen him after taking over for Freeman against the Chiefs. He still has happy feet in the pocket, and he threw a couple of dangerous passes, but he finished with a 132.5 passer rating, and that's encouraging. Third-string quarterback Rudy Carpenter had a touchdown pass and even had a rating of 122.9.
But the Bucs got a glimpse of how scary the huddle looks without No. 5, and it should probably convince them that a veteran quarterback can be a reassuring thing.
I understand the concept of grooming Johnson. I even agree with it. But the season is too long to reasonably expect Freeman to start all 16 games, which means the Bucs will need a dependable third quarterback at some point.
Garcia is 40 and has not thrown a pass in the NFL since his final appearance with the Bucs in 2008, but he is familiar with the philosophies of offensive coordinator Greg Olson and he would never be a threat to a healthy Freeman.
And considering Garcia just signed with the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League, you would have to guess he might be willing to come back to the NFL at the minimum veteran's salary.
Coach Raheem Morris acknowledged signing a veteran is a possibility.
"I'm going to sit down with (general manager) Mark Dominik and see if that is what we want to do. See how we're going to attack it," Morris said. "We'll talk about that (today) in our meetings."
It's not that losing Freeman would cause panic in Las Vegas. The Bucs are already something like 150-to-1 to win the Super Bowl, so it would just mean a long shot got even longer.
The problem is losing Freeman would take away much of your reason for caring. Oh, there are other reasons to watch. (Even on tape delay.) There is Gerald McCoy, who is already drawing double teams. There is Mike Williams, who is already looking like the steal of the draft. There is Geno Hayes, Quincy Black, Aqib Talib and Tanard Jackson, who have the makings of a pretty fine defensive core.
But this franchise revolves around Freeman. The Bucs made that obvious when they drafted him, and your gut confirmed it when you discovered he was in pain Saturday.
The chance he could lead Tampa Bay to the playoffs this season is pretty slim, but that was never the expectation. The beauty of this season is seeing Freeman grow. Watching a big, strong-armed kid mature into something special.
When you finally identify your future quarterback, you want the future to begin immediately.