NFL quarterbacks are like lightbulbs in art galleries. If they don't shine brightly, everything surrounding them becomes irrelevant.
Every week for many weeks now, Christian Ponder has stepped behind a podium and vowed to improve, as if improvement is inevitable. He has used that rationale as a shield against criticism and a talisman against self-doubt. It's as if he doesn't want to think too deeply about the costs of failure.
So he probably shouldn't read the rest of this column.
Ponder has the rest of this season to establish himself as a franchise quarterback. If he proves worthy of the job description, the Vikings can continue to build around him. If he signals that he's not qualified to handle the toughest position in sports, there will be wide-ranging consequences, such as:
• Rick Spielman's otherwise impressive résumé as the Vikings' talent guru will bear a hole the size of a cigarette burn. He will have whiffed on his most important draft pick, and he will have to spend valuable assets in an attempt to find his next franchise quarterback.
The Vikings have won two playoff games since 1988 with a quarterback that they drafted. For all of the franchise's success, it has failed miserably at drafting and developing quarterbacks with staying power. And franchise history is proof that if you can't draft and develop your own franchise quarterback, you are sentenced to purgatory at the position.
If Spielman missed on Ponder, he will have set his personal rebuilding plan back at least a couple of years, and NFL general managers don't get to rebuild too many times before they're replaced.
• Leslie Frazier will have damaged his credibility as a talent evaluator and endangered his job. His record as an NFL head coach is 11-20. That's not surprising given the circumstances under which he has worked, but if his attempt to build a sustainable winner is sabotaged by a player Frazier wanted, a player the Vikings took well before he was projected to be drafted, it will be difficult to excuse a losing record much longer. Few coaches survive poor performance at the quarterback position for long.
• Team morale will plummet. We saw signs of that last Sunday, as Percy Harvin ranted on the sideline and Jared Allen looked disgusted in the locker room. The Vikings don't have enough talent, or a soft enough schedule, to play at anything less than maximum effort and maximum unity without being embarrassed.
While I don't think replacing Ponder with Joe Webb is the right move at this moment, Frazier may have to consider a quarterback change to keep the faith of his players. Players don't want to see anyone gifted a starting job in the NFL based on pedigree. The NFL is a brutal meritocracy. First-round quarterbacks aren't excused from that reality.
• Adrian Peterson and Harvin will waste years in the prime of their careers. Peterson recovering from knee surgery to lead the NFL in rushing while facing defenses dedicated to stopping him might be the most remarkable story in the NFL this season. Harvin might be the best player, pound-for-pound, in the league. Both take brutal hits every game. Harvin is showing signs of wear, and Peterson has already had one major knee surgery. If the Vikings have to take the time to develop another quarterback, they may waste the best years of two of the league's best players.
• Bill Musgrave is linked even more directly to Ponder than Spielman and Frazier, who have wider responsibilities. Musgrave built his reputation as an excellent quarterbacks coach who did good work with Matt Ryan. Now Ryan is thriving without him, and Ponder is in his second slump in two years. Musgrave's career will have peaked if he can't wring more competence from his personal project.
• Zygi Wilf will be forced to make another round of tough decisions. He's developed into a fine NFL owner who has invested his trust in Spielman and Frazier. If Ponder fails and the Vikings continue to be the worst team in a strong division, Wilf may have to reassess his professional judgment of two men he admires.
If he plays well over the next seven games, Ponder will make a lot of problems vanish. If, for the second of his two NFL seasons, he follows a promising beginning with a midseason collapse, it's the people who believed in him who could disappear.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org