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Cincy Personality Ted Karras Returns To New England At Center Of Bengals' Playoff Berth

Fan favorite Ted Karras.
Fan favorite Ted Karras.

Like many Ohio settlers two centuries before him, history buff Ted Karras struck out from Massachusetts back in the spring. It didn't take long for the new center with the Patriot Way and Kennedy charisma to return for Saturday's Christmas Eve game against his old New England team (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) as a Cincinnati staple who has supplied some of the missing ingredients for the Bengals biggest offseason need.

"You could tell he was going to bring a lot of energy and that's something we didn't really have on the O line before that," said quarterback Joe Burrow this week of that first impression over crackers during that now iconic March get-together. "When you have a guy like that on the front, not just in game, but in the locker room where I'm always talking about how great our locker room is and how important that is to winning, Ted is the ultimate locker room guy and that's what you need out of your center."

Burrow came within a few seconds and a few hits of leading the Bengals to Super Bowl rings the month before Karras, right tackle La'el Collins and right guard Alex Cappa signed. Now they're back in the playoffs on a six-game winning streak during which the offensive line has allowed just 10 sacks and Burrow has had enough time to get nominated for NFL MVP.

Meanwhile, Karras' ubiquitous "Cincy," hats he's selling for a hometown charity have become a symbol of how comfortable the city is with this new-found down-to-earth blue-collar guy. Kind of like Tom Browning, the great popular Reds pitcher who passed earlier this week.

It's not all Karras up front. But plenty of it is if you go back to that on-field chat offensive line coach Frank Pollack had with him in the spring. About how Pollack encouraged Karras to help the offensive line find a voice in a conversation Pollack now looks back on with a smile because Karras has done it so naturally and quickly and energetically.

Take the conversation this week with Cappa when asked to describe Karras' personality, which can be riffing on World War I one moment and the next yelling at the entire state of Tennessee to you know what when the Titans violated victory formation protocol last month in Nashville.

"Unique," Cappa said. "He's Ted. Ted is Ted. He's very passionate."

Asked if he's ever asked Karras to dial it back, Cappa laughed as Karras approached.

"All the time," Cappa said.

"If I've told you once I'll tell you again," Karras said, pointing at Cappa. "He's the stabilizing force."

But Burrow insists there is no Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde thing going on with Karras. There is no Off-Field Ted or Game Day Ted.

"He's the same way always," Burrow said. "And that's what you love about him. He's going to bring the intensity on the field and off of it, meetings, out of meetings, in the locker room. He's just a guy you love to have on our team."

That's the way his first quarterback sees it, too. Teddy was always doing something 100 miles per hour. Joe Witchger lived across the street from Karras growing up in Indianapolis and they car-pooled to Cathedral High School for freshmen and then junior varsity football.

Except some of those days that freshmen year when Karras decided he couldn't play tight end in the NFL and needed to put on 100 pounds to play the offensive line. He'd make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches out of entire loaves of bread, always grab a gallon of milk and the protein bars would be sticking out of his jammed backpack. A lot of times when Witchger and his brothers pulled into the driveway to pick him up, his mother would say her son was still making his lunch and she'd have to drive him in.

Witchger also remembers a coach named Darrick Brownlow, a guy that played linebacker for a few years in the early 1990s NFL, being in charge of pregame Karras.

"Before games, when Ted would be getting too riled up, you'd see him take him to the side and calm him down and make sure he didn't lose his composure even before the game started," Witchger says. "It's just his love for the game. You can tell when his fingers start twitching and he starts kicking his legs during warmups."

But there's no one you wanted more in crunch time. Then and now. There were times when one of them was struggling in school with a subject and when their parents thought they were in bed, they crossed the street to help each other. Karras' go-to was and is history. When he and Witchger would play Jeopardy with their parents, Karras would spit out the question barely before the answer had been given.

"He'll drop a few facts on you," said Cappa, who recalled one. "World War I is the most pointless war ever."

Karras isn't a big fan of any war and even though he detonated a Theodore Roosevelt reference on the media last week talking about Tom Brady, he says his taste in history more ancient. More Greece and Rome. But it is his past as a member of the Belichickian dynasty on the edge of Cape Cod that shaped his NFL career and principles that he has brought to this Bengals playoff team.

The No. 1 football thing he learned, he said this week, "is a Bill Belichick adage. You can't win until you keep from losing. I firmly believe that."

A historic twist. Karras comes to town with the Bengals' play-off berth to find the Pats fighting for their postseason lives. Karras says the one Belichick memory he cherishes is the night he got his first of two Super Bowl rings and Belichick gave a speech in which he said there were three moments he knew those 2016 Patriots were a good team.

"The first one was when we beat the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday Night Football. My first game in the league. I took a lot of pride in that," Karras said. "It was exciting for me. I got to say my name and school on Sunday Night Football in Game 1, Season 1."

That first night in Arizona, that 2016 opener, shows the kind of mettle and strength and brains Karras has brought to the locker room and the line. The Patriots had rookie guards in Karras and Joe Thuney. David Andrews was the second-year undrafted center. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was making his first NFL start. The Pats won, 23-21, over the favored Cardinals, making sure Tom Brady had a 2-0 start on the way to another Super Bowl coming off the Deflategate suspension.

Former Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia recalled for back when Karras signed in Cincinnati just what he got and needed from the sixth-round pick blocking for a the classic drop-back passer in Brady

"He does a good job holding the depth of the pocket and, quite honestly, that's what the three guys inside are for. They have to maintain the depth in the pocket," Scarnecchia said. "Look, we can't get knocked back, we have to drop our tail down and anchor them and make it a fist fight up there, and they were very, very good at doing that. Ted was really good at doing that. And any game he started, you just didn't worry about it."

The only truer words from a Patriot have been Paul Revere's warning that "the regulars are out." If you want to know how much Karras has made a difference beyond his personality, look at the Pro Football Focus ranking for pass-blocking efficiency. The Bengals are ranked 11th when it comes to allowing pressure.

If it's one thing a center has to do is communicate. If there's one thing Karras can do, it's communicate. Look at last week in Tampa Bay, when he figures the Bucs blitzed 80 percent of the time and Burrow got sacked just twice on 41 drop-backs.

"He's one of the more energetic people you've been around," says left tackle Jonah Williams, who says he hasn't asked Karras to dial it back. "It's just Teddy being Teddy. Communication on the O-line starts with the center. It's key for him to get our initial calls and I think we've done a good job with that all year. We've got smart guys across the board who are all communicating and working together to get all the calls. It all starts with Teddy. His personality has been a really positive impact on our team."

Matched against the defensive genius of Belichick, Karras knows exactly what is going to go on Saturday. It won't be Jeopardy. It's going to be more like chess.

"It's going to be sideline and halftime adjustment kind of game," Karras said. "We're going to be forced to communicate and adjust between every series and at halftime and we're already starting to prepare for that."

Witchger has been on other side of that when his buddy was playing for Belichick and he made a few trips into Foxboro. But Cincy is different. Witchger noticed that last month when he came in for a game and they picked up some food at a restaurant.

"One of the people at the door saw him and said, 'Good luck on Sunday, Teddy.' He said, 'No matter how long I played or where I played, I've never got gotten more love in a city than I've had in this one.' That why he says he's going to be a Cincy native the rest of his life."

On Saturday, the native returns with a Cincy hat and a playoff berth,