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The Wit of Chip Kelly

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In a tough week, the coach keeps his sense of humor.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Buffalo Bills Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

It's been a rough week for Chip Kelly, between his dad dying and his the way his terrible team's slow improvement vanished in the Chicago snow. And it's hard not to be moved by the thought of him being consoled by Torrey Smith and Jeremy Kerley, both of whom have lost brothers, and the generosity of the Yorks in flying Chip and his girlfriend out to New Hampshire to be with family.

Even so, the coach flashed his dry sarcastic wit at various press conferences this week, even more than usual. The Irish are known for a bitter cleverness born of rough times, at least by European standards, and Kelly has never been shy about expressing it.

There's a connection there, in the thoughtful attitude he inherited from his late father (who studied to be a Jesuit priest for years before dropping out to teach philosophy and theology in Japan). As Chip told KNBR Friday,

"The seeds of depression cannot take root in a grateful heart."

Which is not to say that Chip is all “kumbayah and hug you.” His humor is usually expressed by ridiculing questions he’s asked at press conferences. That can be a little uncomfortable for the reporter, but (with a few exceptions) it’s more about Chip staying aware of accidental humor than attacking the scribe. And (hopefully) it helps keep us media folks on our toes.

These aren’t big ha-ha jokes, and they sometimes fall flat. But his lightning-quick jousting (and occasional random asides about philosophy or bananas in tailpipes) make his press conferences among the most interesting in football. Even among standup comics and improv players, that quick response is a rare and prized skill. At the annual owners’ meeting, his table is always the most crowded.

On Thursday, beat reporter Matt Barrow asked about Aaron Lynch’s statement that he had lost 30 pounds working out while suspended.

A: ... I think he’s been great. I don’t think it was 30 pounds because I think he was in the 290s and he’s in the 280s now. I’m not great at math, but I don’t think it was that much.”

Q: He told us he lost 30 pounds.

A: Yeah. Well, maybe he’s not good at math either.

Immediately after the Chicago game, a journalist pressed him on whether it was a mistake to practice for this snowy game in Florida.

“No, and I am not going to make any excuses. It wasn’t like we could go practice in Saskatchewan this week.”

On Thursday, another reporter asked him about the excessive celebration penalty after Dontae Johnson’s return of a block punt, and Chip drily replied:

“I was just trying to think about what play we were going to run if the ball was out at the four. So, I did not spend a lot of time looking at the snow angel work that our guys were doing in the end zone, to be honest with you.”

A bit later, Kelly (who prefers questions on football Xs and Os) noted the wide range of questions:

“From marijuana to snow angels. Nice gap there.”

One thing Chip does that’s unusual is to reverse the dynamic and start peppering reporters with questions. When a reporter asked if his denial that he might take a college coaching job was more forceful this week than earlier, Chip cut him off and turned the question around:

“Because I think that’s, and I didn’t mean to interrupt you, that’s just normal to me. Like I don’t know, very rarely, has any NFL coach ever left in the middle of a season for a college job?”

Yeah.

“Who?”

University of Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino.

“Name another.”

Petrino.

“Name another.”

When the reporter couldn’t come up with one, Chip poured it on with sarcastic flattery and apologies.

“I’ve always felt that the reporters that covered me were so intelligent that they would understand what I was saying. So, then I learned that it’s probably my fault for not telling the exact point. ... So, that’s why, and again I don’t like having to answer the question all the time...”

I’m not going to pursue it anymore. I’m glad you thought I’m so smart though.

“OK. [Laughter] I appreciate that and I appreciate the intelligent questions that we were asked today so we could clarify the whole situation for everybody.”

You can’t tell from the transcript, but Chip’s timing on that bone-dry “OK” — and his pause after it — was hilarious in the moment. This was his mic drop closer than ended the press conference.

His team isn’t winning, but Kelly is at least keeping the post-loss press conferences interesting. After the week he had, even maintaining that jokey attitude is a sort of minor victory.