LeBron or MJ? Democrat or Republican? Edward or Jacob? Baker or Deshaun?
If you're a Cleveland Browns fan, the latter is perhaps the most flammable debate of any. And two seasons into the Deshaun Watson project, the fuel on the flames show no signs of dying down.
Whether it be pundits on national TV, local journalists and radio hosts, or social media wars between cliques that have come to be known as the "Baker Bros" and "Watson Warriors," opinions on how the Browns should have handled their quarterback room in the 2021 offseason are as loud as ever. Why?
Baker Mayfield, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has made his first career Pro Bowl.
The 2018 No. 1 overall draft pick for the Browns, Mayfield continues to be as polarizing as ever within the fan base, despite not having been on the roster for two seasons. Run out of town by GM Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski, Mayfield left Cleveland as the first quarterback to lead the Browns to the playoffs since a combination of Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb in the 2002 season, and the first to win a postseason game since Vinny Testaverde in 1994.
During the 2020 campaign, Mayfield surpassed Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger for the most wins as a starter in Cleveland Browns Stadium, then led his team to an 11-5 record in the regular season. A victory in the Wild Card round of the playoffs versus the Roethlisberger-led Steelers would soon follow, before eventually falling to the Chiefs in the Divisional round.
And yet, the Browns coaching staff and front office decided they needed an upgrade. Enter Deshaun Watson.
A three-time Pro Bowler with the Houston Texans, Watson was acquired by Cleveland via a much-maligned trade which saw the Browns send three first-round draft picks to the Texans in exchange for the franchise QB, despite accusations of sexual assault by more than 20 women against the star player. Undeterred by the allegations, or any looming suspensions as a result, Watson was given a new five-year, $230 million contract, every penny of which would be guaranteed.
Even removing the off-field issues, Watson, now two years into the record-breaking contract, has failed to live up to expectations. With just 12 games played out of a possible 34, the availability hasn't been there, whether that be due to injury or the aforementioned suspension, which wiped away 11 games of his 2022 season.
When Watson has been on the field, the level of play could be described as inconsistent at best. This season alone witnessed the high of blowing out the defending AFC North champion Bengals in Week 1, immediately followed by a dud versus the rival Steelers in Week 2. Watson then played perhaps his most complete game of the season in a whooping of the Titans in week three.
However, he sustained a shoulder injury during the game which would keep him out for the next five weeks. After a walk in the park against the hapless Cardinals upon his return in week nine, Watson led an incredible 14-point comeback against the Ravens in Baltimore, in which he didn't throw an incompletion in 14 pass attempts in the second half, and led the team on a game-winning drive in the closing minutes to propel a 33-31 victory over the division rivals. But, a few days later, it was announced he would miss the rest of the season due to a separate shoulder injury.
Stability at the position, a main reason for moving off of Mayfield in favor of Watson, had once again evaded the Browns organization.
Mayfield, meanwhile, started all 17 games for the Buccaneers, delivering a 9-8 record and a division title in the less-than-stellar NFC South. With consistency issues in his own right, Mayfield's performance almost resembled that of his 2020 season with the Browns, from a statistical perspective. It also ended the same, with a victory in the Wild Card round of the playoffs against the Eagles, followed by a defeat at the hands of the Lions in the Divisional round.
The Buccaneers are now expected to attempt to re-sign their newly-named Pro Bowler, who will soon be an unrestricted free agent, in a deal that would be exponentially bigger than the one-year, $6.85 million contract Mayfield played under this season. The Browns, on the other hand, are forced to pay Watson $138 million over the next three seasons, for better or worse.
Before any eventual contract negotiations, Mayfield will spend this coming weekend with his peers at the Pro Bowl Games in Orlando, in excellent weather and surrounded by palm trees. Meanwhile, the city of Cleveland just finished its third cloudiest January in the last 70 years. Is this a symbology of what's to come, or will Watson and the Browns eventually take back some of Baker's sunshine? Only time will tell, but until then, the debates rage on.