There seems to be a fraternity among quarterbacks who played at a significant level of competition. This has to be based on the fact that they are playing the most difficult position to master in sports.

Anyone unwilling to accept that theory should figure out a way to stand behind the opposite end zone as a quarterback attempts to advance his team down the field. What appear to be missed receivers from the press box and the stands becomes a chaos of colors and bodies when seeing the field horizontally, as does a quarterback.

I was behind the end zone at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium on Jan. 11, 1987, when John Elway and the Denver Broncos took possession at the 2-yard line with 5 minutes remaining and trailing the Browns 20-13 in the AFC title game.

As the Broncos made their journey into the winds of Lake Erie, the reporters watched the six completions for 78 yards and kept wondering, "How did Elway find that guy?"

Eventually, the Broncos tied it on a touchdown with 37 seconds remaining, and won it on an overtime field goal 23-20, and Elway's masterpiece remains "The Drive'' in pro football lore.

To me, that's what carries the greatest level of mystery in what quarterback will be a clear success in the NFL, and a quarterback that stays stuck in mediocrity.

Strength of arm and body and mobility are great assets, but if you are slow to recognize that an opening is about to occur amid the chaos of colors, you don't have a chance to be the long-term answer at quarterback for a contending NFL team.

And "slow'' in this context means a half-second late (or less).

I'm like every civilian following the NFL: I can be amazed by an outstanding quarterback and blasé about a mediocre one when there's a track record, but to announce a verdict on Christian Ponder after a snapshot of 10 starts as a Vikings rookie ... help!

I talked to a few members of the quarterback fraternity -- not NFLers but college QBs who played in competitive surroundings -- and Tom Linnemann offered a thorough scouting report.

Linnemann holds the St. John's single-season passing record at 3,449 yards. In his senior season of 2000, the Johnnies lost 10-7 to mighty Mount Union in the Division III national title game.

He now devours the game and quarterbacking. For instance: He was giddy when the NFL Network started showing Senior Bowl workouts. He's a Melrose lad and true Purple, but also candid when asked on Wednesday: "Do you believe in Ponder?"

Linnemann said: "I desperately want to be a believer. He's such a likeable kid. I love his leadership and he's underrated athletically.

"Two things bother me: One, he hasn't won. He didn't win in high school at Colleyville [Heritage High in Texas]. He didn't win at Florida State, and FSU had talent. And two, his accuracy. He was 61.8 percent in college. That doesn't translate to 63 percent or greater in the NFL, and that's what the good ones are doing now.

"Also, the rate of TDs to interceptions at Florida State -- 1 1/2 to 1 -- is bothersome, when you look at how much better the corners and safeties are in the NFL than they were at Duke and North Carolina. That poor ratio continued as an NFL rookie, with 13 TDs and 13 picks."

How does an experienced student of quarterbacking rate Ponder's future?

"Will he be a top-five quarterback? No," Linnemann said. "Will he be a top 15? Yes. Is that good enough? Maybe.

"I believe that second-tier quarterbacks can win Super Bowls, and third-tier guys can't. And I see Ponder on that border between second tier and third tier."

Those 10 starts with a substandard quarterback rating of 70.1 come with this asterisk: They came after an offseason largely wiped out by the owners' lockout.

Ponder is at Winter Park now, engaged in workouts and offensive study that will give him a real chance to prove he's one of those athletes who can sort through the chaos and become a winner in the most difficult job in American sports: NFL quarterback.

"I love his moxie," said Linnemann, and that's high praise when you were raised in Melrose.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM.