April 10, 2014 at 8:38 pm

John Niyo

Lions' Matthew Stafford keeps focus, and hat, in right direction - forward

Allen Park — The hat was pointed forward, if you pay attention to things like that.

And though Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford insists he doesn’t, he can’t help but be reminded. Thursday morning, after meeting with the media for the first time since last season ended with a fan base aflame and a coaching staff fired, a reporter jokingly thanked Stafford for wearing his Lions cap properly.

Former Bears coach Mike Ditka and ex-Giants quarterback Phil Simms were among the prominent voices chastising him for the backward-hat look on the sidelines and during postgame interviews last season, calling it unprofessional and disrespectful, among other things.

“What are you doing?” Simms said, stopping just short of ordering Stafford off his lawn. “It’s unbelievable — drives me crazy.”

Which, of course, is as crazy as it sounds. On the list of things I don’t concern myself with regarding Stafford’s ability to lead his team to the playoffs, ball-cap orientation ranks only slightly below engagement photos, vacation choices and offseason quarterback gurus.

But, Stafford knows the drill by now, and as he exited the room Thursday, he responded to the hat remark by saying “You got it” — as sarcastically as the joke was delivered — and then swiveling his cap backward.

New staff, same expectations

So ... satisfied? Probably not, and Stafford — now 26, a sixth-year pro, and, yes, engaged to longtime girlfriend Kelly Hall — certainly gets that, too.

He endured the “china doll” phase of his NFL initiation after missing most of his first two seasons with injuries, and the former No. 1 overall pick responded by setting a franchise record with 48 consecutive starts — 49, including that playoff game.

He has had his mechanics dissected by everyone but the Magliozzi brothers on NPR’s “Car Talk” show, yet still has passed for nearly 15,000 yards the last three seasons.

And after last season’s promising start was spoiled by a spate of turnovers and a series of blown fourth-quarter leads, Stafford’s well aware of the perception he’s to blame for what went wrong, and what came next.

“I learned not to pay attention to everything,” said Stafford, who committed 14 turnovers the final seven games while completing 54.4 percent of his passes. “Obviously, there’s a lot of things that are written. You guys gotta fill the papers up and fill the airwaves — I understand that.

“But football is on the field and there’s definitely room for improvement, not only for myself but as a team. And that’s what this time of year is about, going out there and working on yourself and getting to know some of the new teammates, new coaches, new system — all that kind of stuff.”

A lot of that stuff seems to be tailored to maximizing Stafford’s potential, from the hiring of coach Jim Caldwell and the additions of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter to the most notable free-agent signing of Golden Tate.

And while Stafford publicly balks at that notion — “I think it was about us trying to be the best team we can be, more than anything,” he said — he understands how it looks. Sort of like that hat thing, I suppose.

For the first time in his career, Stafford is dealing with a new staff and a new scheme even as he faces the same-old expectations.

He’d watched video cut-ups of the Saints’ and Colts’ offenses — and probably the Ravens from last season as well — to get an idea of what changes may be in store. And now that he has his hands on the playbook, he’s diving into the new terminology.

“It’s almost like learning a foreign language,” Caldwell said.

But until they get on the field in a couple weeks for the team’s first minicamp, with Lombardi calling the shots and Caldwell and his hand-picked quarterbacks coach harping on Stafford’s footwork, it’s all just talk.

“It’s different, you know,” Stafford said. “But it’s exciting, too. Fresh opportunity, new coaches, everybody on our team has a clean slate. You have to go out and prove yourself to these coaches and get them to trust you as a player on the field and a person off the field.”

Caldwell has faith

The coach and quarterback have said all the right things about each other thus far, though admittedly that was always the case with the last staff. (And maybe part of the problem, too.)

Still, Stafford praised Caldwell as a “bright, intelligent guy” and a “confident” coach with a “great track record” and “a clear set of ideas and goals.” Caldwell called Stafford “a sharp guy” who is “smart” and “dedicated,” among other things.

“He wants to be good,” Caldwell said. “He’s a worker. And I have no doubt, with a guy that has that kind of attitude and obviously he has ability — both physically and mentally, he has the intellect to do it — I think he’s gonna be fine.”

He should be, no doubt. And he’ll be a lot better off if the front office follows up on a necessary free-agent move — signing Tate — and adds another legitimate receiving threat on Day 1 or 2 of next month’s draft to help Stafford and protect Calvin Johnson. Both have taken an inordinate amount of punishment — Stafford from his critics, and Johnson from opposing defenses — thanks in part to the Lions’ lack of secondary receiving targets the past two seasons.

But passing the buck won’t get Stafford anywhere. Surely, he knows that, right?

“In this league,” he said, “you win games, your quarterback’s gonna get a lot of credit. You lose games, he’s gonna get a lot of blame. Sometimes it’s right on, sometimes it’s not. That’s something that you’ve got to learn to take with a grain of salt and just try to improve.”

That, obviously, is what has to happen going forward — and not just for appearance’s sake.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has had his share of miscues, but still has thrown for nearly 15,000 yards the last three seasons. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News
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