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Bagshot, England — For the first five years of his career, Matthew Stafford received the gunslinger label as he leaned on the enormous strength of his right arm and often made ill-advised decisions.

Stafford has done a better job protecting the ball in 2014. Even though he hasn't produced at his typical rate, his six interceptions this season put him on pace to have just 14, which would be the lowest total in a season in which he's played 10-plus games.

The reduction in errors has allowed the Lions' No. 1 defense to largely carry the team to a 5-2 start this season, but it's also started to change the perception of Stafford from gunslinger to game manager, a term often given to quarterbacks who lack big-play ability.

"I'm just trying to play the best football I can play," Stafford said Thursday at the Pennyhill Park Hotel. "I'm trying to win games, really never got in too much with labels. As to what type of quarterback I am, I just try to play each individual game as well as I can, do what I'm asked to do and win them."

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said he's seen a shift in Stafford's play this season and credited coach Jim Caldwell, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter for limiting the costly mistakes. The first overall pick in 2009, Stafford had 16 interceptions in 2011, 17 in 2012 and 19 in 2013.

"I think his game is becoming much more cerebral," Mayhew said Thursday. "I think he's a very smart guy, but I think, in the past, a lot of times it was just about his arm, just about making that throw. I think he's becoming, if it's possible, a smarter quarterback."

With 1,891 yards so far, Stafford projects to finish with 4,322 yards, which would be his lowest total of the past four years. With nine touchdowns in seven games, he's on pace for 21 touchdowns, one more than in 2012 but well shy of 41 in 2011 and 29 in 2013.

However, Stafford is completing 63.1 percent of his passes after falling below 60 percent the past two seasons. His career high was 63.5 percent in 2011.

Wide receiver Calvin Johnson missing two games and being hobbled in two others has played a role in the play-calling, but Stafford has taken fewer shots down the field. According to Pro Football Focus, 10.3 percent of Stafford's attempts have traveled 20-plus yards, down from 12.1 percent in 2013, which is promoting the game manager tag.

"I think it's got a negative connotation, but it doesn't necessarily need to be that way," Stafford said. "There are a lot of great quarterbacks that people in the media would label a 'game manager.' There's a lot of good ones that they say are gunslingers. It doesn't matter to me; I don't really care."

With his ability to gain yards after catch, Golden Tate reduced the necessity to throw it deep, but the Lions have talked most of the season about the need for the offense to produce more while continuing to play smart. The Lions rank 24th in yards per game (332.1) and 25th in points (20).

Caldwell said the ability to adapt is what ultimately helps quarterbacks win, so like Stafford, he doesn't see a problem with the title of game manager.

"All of the quarterbacks who have won the Super Bowl have all been guys that understand exactly what their role is in terms of contributing to a win," Caldwell said.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/jkatzenstein

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