Cleveland browns quarterback Deshaun Watson meets with head coach Kevin Stefanski. Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson talks with head coach Kevin Stefanski. Credit: Phil Masturzo; USA Today Network

No football coach did more for his reputation last season than Kevin Stefanski. He went from being on the hot seat to winning NFL Coach of the Year honors for the second time in four years.

The Cleveland Browns rewarded Stefanski with a contract extension, letting the league know that ownership stands firmly behind the 42-year-old.

It’s well-deserved.

Few coaches could overcome the loss of their starting quarterback, starting running back, and various injuries along the offensive line. But Stefanski cobbled together an offense that was good enough. The Browns made the playoffs with five starting quarterbacks. That cannot be overstated. Cleveland thrived with the fossilizing remains of Joe Flacco, the NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

Stefanski has led the franchise to two playoff trips since he arrived in 2020. Before him, there was a 17-year drought. Clearly, he is good at his job.

Deshaun Watson? We are not as sure. What seemed inconceivable this time last year is now a possibility: Stefanski might outlast Watson in Cleveland.

Cleveland spent a lot of money and draft capital in 2022 to acquire the controversial Watson. So far, he has not lived up to his fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract.

Yes, the Browns went 5-1 in Watson’s starts last year. But that was mostly because of their league-leading defense (274.9 total yards allowed per game). Watson’s passer rating was 84.3. Flacco came off the couch to post a passer rating of 90.2. Since Watson has been in Cleveland, he hasn’t looked like the quarterback who led the NFL in passing yards (4,823) in 2020. Or the guy who held a 24-0 playoff lead on Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. 

Before last season, you could reasonably blame Stefanski for not getting enough from Watson. However, in 2024, all the pressure is on Watson to perform. If the 28-year-old has another underwhelming season, what’s next? The narrative that the Browns can’t afford to move on from Watson may no longer be valid. The Denver Broncos cut Russell Wilson, taking on a massive $85 million dead salary-cap hit. With that precedent set, it wouldn’t be shocking if Cleveland ousted Watson in 2025 or 2026. The Browns would take salary-cap hits of $63.977 million in 2025 and $72.961 million in 2026.

Not ideal. Not great. Not impossible.

The most valuable thing in this salary-cap sport is a good young quarterback on a rookie deal. The Broncos hit the reset button with first-round pick Bo Nix. Maybe he works out. Maybe he doesn’t. It’s a risk worth taking. The least valuable thing in this salary-cap sport is an expensive and underwhelming veteran quarterback. For Watson to justify the enormous dollars Cleveland is paying him, he must be closer to something like MVPs Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes. Right now, he’s not even as good as former Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who after numerous setbacks, has revitalized his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The best-case scenario for Watson this fall is that he stays healthy, plays reasonably well, and leads the franchise to a playoff victory. That might be enough for the Browns to extend his contract at a reduced rate per year. However, the AFC North is the league’s toughest division. The worst-case scenario would be a continuation of Watson’s lackluster play.

If the Browns struggle, Watson will be blamed. Stefanski has earned the benefit of the doubt. There’s a good chance he will be around longer than Watson.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.