Once again, the city of Detroit and the nation are simultaneously buzzing about how Matthew Stafford wears his hat. And it signifies a larger issue.
Hall of Famer Mike Ditka recently told the Detroit Free Press, "If you're the leader of the football team, I think you've got to stand up and be that leader, assume that role. A lot of it is what you do on the field, certainly. But I think a little of it has to do with appearance, too. You know, respect the game, respect your team. That's all.
"I'm not knocking him. I'm just saying that's the first thing I would tell him if I inherited him. When you're going to go do an interview, put it on like it's supposed to be on, not backwards, sidewards, whatever way they put them on anymore."
Ah, yes, the backward hat.
As Ditka's take makes clear, Stafford has a perception problem. The Detroit Lions quarterback is struggling with both the forward pass and the forward hat.
Of course, Stafford can make it go away by simply evening out his play and winning -- though perhaps that's easier said than done.
This isn't the first time Stafford's hat has been a topic of discussion. Near the end of Detroit's disastrous 4-12 campaign of 2012, I wrote a scathing review of the Lions' underachievement in which I dinged Stafford for his backward-hat habit. The column also scrutinized off-field issues and on-field lack of discipline, and covered how the quarterback could help fix it. After yet another disappointing season in 2013, which saw the Lions lose six of their final seven games, coach Jim Schwartz was fired.
During Detroit's ensuing search for his replacement, on our CBS Sports Network show, "NFL Monday QB," Phil Simms, Rich Gannon and Steve Beuerlein all took issue with Stafford being included in interviews. Simms and Beuerlein also took issue with Stafford wearing the hat backward. And I seized the chance to agree.
When the backward hat is coupled with losses, it creates the perception among the public that Stafford is carefree. The older generations view it as just plain disrespectful.
"I cringe when I see him wearing it like that, especially talking to the press or after an interception," one general manager of a winning team told me.
"I can't help him throw, but he needs to understand how it is being portrayed," the public relations director of a team opined. "Hat forward for interviews and on sideline. It's not complicated."
OK, let's get one thing straight: It's not simply that Stafford wears his hat backward. It's the sloppy footwork. It's the interceptions. It's the losing. It's the general under-performance.
Let's go back to Week 15 of the 2013 season. The Lions were facing a pivotal contest, on the national stage of "Monday Night Football" -- and Stafford coughed up two fourth-quarter interceptions (three total) in a painful home loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Detroit, which entered in command of the NFC North, was the more talented team in that game -- the Lionsooze talent -- but Baltimore scraped and clawed and exhibited the toughness of a winner.
On one of his fourth-quarter picks, Stafford threw sidearm across the middle in haphazard fashion, setting off a chorus of boos in Ford Field. After the turnover, Stafford sat on the bench with his hat on backward, looking like an 8-year-old in gym class, without a care in the world.
Current and former quarterbacks talk about the importance of playing the position in the fifth quarter. That comes down to leadership, how you handle yourself in the community and in the press. It's about hard work and dedication.
Is it old school to think a backward hat shows immaturity or a lack of focus? Maybe. Or maybe there's something to it.
During Arizona Cardinals training camp back in 2010, Matt Leinart sat down to do an interview with Chris Mortensen on ESPN. Leinart, who had a reputation for being more interested in the hot tub than understanding hot reads, wore his hat backward the entire time. I got a text from a Cardinals source that morning that read, "Look at my (bleeping) QB. Look at his (bleeping) hat. What an embarrassment. He doesn't care."
Leinart was cut a few weeks later.
Now, Stafford can play, and Leinart couldn't. But Stafford needs to understand that when you lose, throw picks, "lead" an undisciplined team that annually ranks in the bottom quarter of the league in penalty yards per game, do campaigns for AXE hair gel and wear your hat backward, it all blends together.
Do you remember what Crash Davis told Nuke LaLoosh about his appearance in the classic movie, "Bull Durham"?
Schein: The never-ending discussion
Yup, the great quarterback debate is back! Adam Schein establishes who is "elite" -- and how we should view the other QBs. **READ**
"Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You'll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you'll be classy. If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back on your shower shoes and the press will think you're colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you're a slob."
Until Stafford stops throwing picks across his body, until he stops making regrettable late-game decisions, until the Lions start winning consistently, the backward hat will be perceived as a symbol of carelessness.
I think Stafford wants nothing more than to deliver a championship to Detroit. New Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Thursday he thinks the quarterback is capable of doing as much. That said, we haven't seen results yet.
If Stafford starts winning consistently, he can wear a top hat on the sideline or a floppy hat during interviews.
But until Stafford turns it around, he should, well, turn it around.