FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There hasn't been much subtle about the Cleveland Browns this year. They made big offseason changes, put together a collection of big personalities and created big expectations.
There is, then, no surprise that there is no subtlety accompanying their big failure, too.
The Browns are 2-5, after a 27-13 loss to the New England Patriots (8-0) that was particularly maddening because it underscored all that was possible, while also reminding everyone of just how consistently the Browns are their own undoing. They make big mistakes, they show big resilience and then they cast big aspersions at what is going wrong.
"It's just non-disciplined, guys not being focused on doing their job," quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "It starts first and foremost with me, to be a leader every single down."
Mayfield is a fan of first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens -- it was their relationship and work together last season that got Kitchens the top job -- so it seems unlikely the quarterback was thinking of his coach when he made those comments, although a lack of discipline and accountability typically falls directly into the lap of the head coach. But Mayfield, who is mired in a miserable sophomore season that has already seen him throw 12 interceptions, returned to those talking points repeatedly Sunday night.
"I just think everybody has to be singular(ly) focused on doing their job, not worrying about what's going on on the outside," Mayfield added later. "We have to be willing to sacrifice the ultimate price to get to what we talked about pre-season, our ultimate goals. We have to be able to sacrifice stuff each and every day: time, focus."
Perhaps they should start by worrying about what they are doing on the field. With two weeks to prepare for the Patriots because of their bye week, the Browns opened the game with a remarkable first-quarter triple play: three turnovers on three consecutive snaps before they had a first down. Two fumbles by Nick Chubb were followed by a head-scratching play call for a shovel pass deep in the Browns on territory on a sodden field. Before the quarter was over, it was 17-0 Patriots. Mayfield was asked to explain what happened during that sequence, and his brusqueness said everything about the tension engulfing this team yet again.
"It happened fumble, fumble, interception," Mayfield responded.
Or, as Kitchens put it: "Everything we said that we couldn't do to win the game, we did. And it all happened in the first quarter."
That the Browns did steady themselves, and closed the game to 17-10 is almost more damning than the errors. It indicates that the Browns do have the talent and the resiliency to be a formidable team. But it raises the eternal, existential question that will hover over the Browns until they finally summon an answer: Why -- why -- do these things continue to happen? Why the self-defeating mistakes and the ultra-risky play calling? Why the 13 penalties? Why the challenges -- including one on an offensive pass interference that had no chance of being overruled -- that sacrifice timeouts? Why the mind-bending decision, when trailing by 17 points with 6:17 remaining in the game and facing fourth-and-11, to send the punt team out, and instruct them to take a false start so that the offense can come back on to take another shot -- on fourth-and-16 -- without using the final timeout?
Kitchens said he wouldn't talk about penalties, but Odell Beckham Jr. offered that he doesn't view many kinds of penalties -- like offsides, for instance -- as a lack of discipline. Those are mistakes, he explained, made by people who are trying to get a jump on a play. Which, while true, is almost certainly not what any coach wants to hear. Still, Kitchens was defiant when he was asked if his team's brief comeback made the underlying issues even more hard to understand.
"We had a lot of confidence going into this game and we've got a lot of confidence coming out of this game," Kitchens said. "Because we understand why we lost the game. We lost the game because we turned the ball over and penalties. We need to stop committing penalties, alright? We need to focus and concentrate on enough on staying onsides, so we don't end up in first-and-20, alright? That's how you win games. And then take care of the football."
It was somewhat fitting that on the other sideline was Bill Belichick, who has made a career of not letting his team beat itself. This was his 300th win as a head coach, the deliciouness of the irony that it came over the Browns lost on nobody. Belichick routinely outcoaches even his most formidable adversaries, but the truth was the Patriots didn't even need much of Belichick's brainpower here. They were sloppy at moments, too, but the Browns unravelled and it feels like the fallout can't be far behind.
Kitchens was always going to be the biggest X-factor for the Browns this season. There is no shortage of talent on the roster, but it was on him to manage the personalities and get the most out of the players, particularly Mayfield and his bevy of offensive weapons. But Mayfield has regressed and one moment beyond the early mistakes seemed to sum up all the missed opportunities with this offense. Halfway through the season, Mayfield and Beckham still are not entirely on the same page -- Mayfield threw a back-shoulder pass to Beckham that should have been caught, but Beckham did not turn in time to see it.
"This is a very, very good team, so it's not about us not executing it -- we just didn't get that two-minute drive," Beckham said.
Maybe Beckham didn't mean to make an excuse, but that sure sounded like one.
Beckham was mostly erased Sunday night by the Patriots' superb cornerback Stephon Gilmore, catching just five passes for 52 yards. He has just two 100-yard receiving games so far this season. Beckham has not complained so far about Cleveland's struggles to get him involved in games, but on Sunday night, you could hear the first faint sounds of frustration leaking out. His trade from the Giants to the Browns was supposed to liberate him and turbocharge Cleveland. It has, so far, done neither. Beckham praised Gilmore, calling him an All-Pro. But then ...
"I just felt like we didn't challenge as much as we could have," he said. "I think we kind of shied away from it. I was expecting and looking forward to it, but that wasn't the case today. For whatever reason, we didn't do as much challenging as we talked about. Whatever opportunities I had, I made the most of them. You can only control what you can control."
"You know, we fought hard," Beckham said. "It's not like patting us on the back. We lost the game. And that's not what we came here to do. If we don't correct these mistakes, we're going to be the 'what if' team."