PALM BEACH, Fla. — Put away those popgun arms. They had as much right in the AFC West as a hayseed at an English tea.
Maybe the AFC West is not quite all the way back to the days of the Mad Bomber, Air Coryell and the Duke. But a quick look around the division and quarterback has once again become a position of pride.
"When you look at our division, in the last couple of years, we've got some of the best quarterback play in all of football with Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer and now Peyton Manning," new Oakland Raiders coach Dennis Allen said Tuesday at the NFL meetings.
Allen is the AFC West's neophyte head coach. His roots are burrowed on defense, most notably as the Broncos' defensive coordinator last season.
Photos: Manning gets in some throwing reps
No assistant coach ever passes up a head coaching job, but the Broncos aren't making it easy for Allen to break in. Last week, the Broncos signed Peyton Manning to a five-year contract worth $96 million. The only four-time MVP in NFL history, Manning ranks No. 3 all time in touchdown passes (399), yards passing (54,828) and completions (4,682).
"I have mixed emotions because after just leaving those guys, I've got a lot of friends on that staff," Allen said of the Broncos. "You want them to do well. At the same time they're in our division, they're one of our biggest rivalries and you'd rather not see them get one of the better quarterbacks to ever play the game."
The past two AFC West seasons began with a QB corral of Philip Rivers and the Average Joes. Or an average Jason Campbell, Kyle Orton and Matt Cassel. Campbell, an efficient game manager, wasn't the Raiders. The Raiders are Daryl "Mad Bomber" Lamonica and Kenny "The Snake" Stabler.
Carson Palmer better fits the Raiders' tradition. He averaged 4,000 yards and nearly 30 touchdown passes a season for the Cincinnati Bengals from 2005-07. The Raiders acquired him at midseason last year for two high draft picks.
"Three or four years ago, people would have said Philip was the best quarterback in our division and there was uncertainty with the other three teams," said Chargers coach Norv Turner. "Now you look at our division and all four teams have outstanding quarterbacks. I think everyone in the league will look at us and say they're a lot more capable than they've been."
A case can be made that even with Manning's storied accomplishments, Rivers remains the quarterback to beat in the AFC West. He told a San Diego radio station two weeks ago that he would welcome the challenge of having Manning join the division. Why should Rivers be afraid? He's 2-for-2 against Manning in the postseason.
Nevertheless, the oddsmakers catapulted the Broncos from the AFC West's worst to first after signing Manning.
"A San Diego guy, he was trying to bait me into saying we have Peyton Manning, now we're on top of San Diego," Broncos coach John Fox said Tuesday during the AFC coaches' breakfast with the media. "I'm like, do I have a big red 'S' on my head?' "
Hey, Coach, could you move your hand ...
"Hey, don't you answer that!" Fox said, chuckling.
It's a stretch to say Kansas City's Cassel belongs in the same class as the division's other three quarterbacks. But it's not farfetched to believe Cassel may be playing for the division's best overall team.
Cassel can be efficient — he threw 27 TD passes against seven interceptions in 2010 when he led the Chiefs to a 10-6 record and division title. But in his other two seasons with the Chiefs, Cassel is a combined 8-16 with 26 TD passess and 25 interceptions.
"Let him fly under the radar right now," Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said. "But Matt is looking forward to competing in (new offensive coordinator) Brian Daboll's system. Hopefully, he can be the quarterback he was in 2010 for us, when we won the division with him. He didn't turn the ball over most of that time. If we can get him to develop that consistency, he might surprise some people."
Strongest guns in the West
An infusion of elite quarterbacks has brought respectability back to the AFC West. NFL reporter Mike Klis ranks the starting quarterbacks:
1. Philip Rivers, Chargers
Acquired: No. 4 overall pick in 2004 draft after a trade with the Giants
4-1 record against Peyton Manning-led Colts; plus, he's six years younger than Manning and healthier than Manning.
2. Peyton Manning, Broncos
Free agent arrived this month, signing a five-year deal worth $96 million
Even after missing last season, 84 more wins (counting playoffs) than Rivers, two more Super Bowls, one more title ring.
3. Carson Palmer, Raiders
Trade last season with Cincinnati for first- and second-round draft picks
Between rust from a holdout and unfamiliarity with a new team, threw more picks (16) than TD passes (13) last year.
4. Matt Cassel, Chiefs
Ex-USC backup came from New England in 2009 sign-and-trade deal
The division's QB misfit. Still may have the most well-rounded roster, so will win his share against the other three.