Gene Frenette: Arden Key leaving for the Titans not about disrespect, but business
Athletes playing the “disrespect” card whenever there’s any kind of contract impasse in negotiations or after defeating a favored opponent is nothing all that original.
It has become a go-to vent, a convenient phrase to pull out that may or may not accurately depict what transpires between two parties in contract talks or the hype leading up to a football game.
Sometimes, it’s a “we felt disrespected” thing, players crowing afterward about why they felt so motivated to perform at a high level. Other times, it’s simply the cumulative effect of one player feeling weighed down by his experience with a current or former employer.
Pick a sport. Pick a big-name star. Somewhere, somebody is being disrespected.
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Whether it’s the mindset of NBA All-Star Kyrie Irving before his Brooklyn Nets divorce, St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado’s public disenchantment with his previous team, the Colorado Rockies, or Aaron Rodgers expressing any number of frustrations in recent years with the Green Bay Packers, you don’t have to look hard to find an athlete feeling some form of disrespect.
But when defensive end Arden Key chose that route in his introductory press conference Monday as one of the newest members of the Tennessee Titans — saying he “felt disrespected” by the Jaguars for not retaining his services — it struck me as an odd, oh-by-the-way parting shot.
Key was drawing a parallel between how he departed the San Francisco 49ers after the 2021 season, saying he was told to go test the free agent market and understood that circumstance. He then implied, without elaborating, that there was a different disconnect that he didn’t like with the Jaguars.
“With Jacksonville, it was a shock to me, I ain’t gonna lie,” Key told the Titans’ media. “After the year, I thought I was going to be a Jacksonville Jaguar. But. … I felt disrespected because I came in over there, built up the culture, brought a whole lot of energy, changed the city, changed the town. I felt like in my rightful mind, I’m going to be a Jacksonville Jaguar, but that didn’t happen.”
Let’s be clear about something: this isn’t Calais Campbell throwing a little shade the Jaguars’ way after delivering 31.5 sacks in three years and getting traded to the Baltimore Ravens.
This is Arden Key, a solid rotational pass-rusher who, yes, did his part to energize the 2022 defense with 4.5 sacks and occasionally livened up the locker room with his boom box. He was a valued teammate, unquestionably a fun guy to be around.
Key probably had his best games in back-to-back December wins over Tennessee and the Dallas Cowboys, which launched the Jaguars’ six-game winning streak that propelled them to the playoffs.
So he brought some good things to the table, but Key got more than a bit carried away by using the “I” word in claiming responsibility for building up the culture and changing the city.
No one player did that, and if so, the lead candidate would be franchise quarterback Trevor Lawrence, not a backup player the Jaguars plucked in free agency for a one-year contract worth $4 million.
Truthfully, the culture-building credit goes to head coach Doug Pederson because, more than anyone, he set the tone for the organization. That point isn’t even up for debate.
Going back to Key’s disrespect point, he clearly wasn’t talking about anyone in the locker room, the city or the fan base because he acknowledged “love” for all those components.
No, it was obviously directed at the front office and GM Trent Baalke for some perceived — and undefined — slight. Baalke declined to discuss Key’s comments, though it’s hard to imagine him smiling about the “disrespect” part.
What made what Key said so disappointing, besides getting a little full of himself, is he should have just stuck to celebrating a fresh start in his new city, albeit with the Jaguars’ most hated AFC South rival.
I don’t believe for a second Key was disrespected by Baalke or anybody else in the organization. Oh, he might not have been offered the money he thought he was worth, but it’s doubtful the Jaguars low-balled Key since his Titans’ contract (3 years, $21 million) is commensurate with what a solid situational pass-rusher or potential starter might command.
Besides, plenty of other Jaguars’ free agents — Andrew Wingard, Adam Gotsis, Tre Herndon, C.J. Beathard — seemed happy with their contracts because they signed on to return.
And you didn’t hear offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor, in his introductory press conference with the Kansas City Chiefs after signing a four-year, $80 million contract, say anything about being disrespected by the Jaguars.
Taylor expressed gratitude for his four seasons in Jacksonville, acknowledging the impact of line coaches George Warhop (2019-21) and Phil Rauscher (2022), along with Pederson.
Like many free agents who make business decisions, Taylor elected for a change of scenery with a Super Bowl championship team. You can hardly blame him for taking that opportunity.
My belief is Key feeling “disrespected” by the Jaguars is a misleading narrative, either to fan the flames of what he knows is a big rivalry or to somehow impress his Titans teammates.
But him leaving the Jaguars wasn’t so much about money as his place on the depth chart. Key wants to be a starter, and he made that point abundantly clear in an interview the same day with Tennessee play-by-play voice Mike Keith.
“That’s why I came to Tennessee,” said Key. “It was an opportunity for me to come in and play as a starter, have a starting role. I’ve been looking for a starting role for the last two years. I wasn’t able to get that in San Fran, which being honest, there’s some guys over there, and I can’t be mad at that because it’s dudes, All-Pros, everything. So I can’t argue with that.
“But Jacksonville, I was kind of arguing with [wanting to be a starter]. My numbers, compared to their numbers, we can sit and we can talk. I was just tired of being a third-down, pass-rush specialist. That’s my name now. … I’m more than just a pass-rusher. I play the run, too.”
Key got three starts in December when Travon Walker was either sidelined or not fully recovered. So it’s his prerogative to pursue a job elsewhere where he might — though certainly no guarantee with the Titans’ depth and Harold Landry returning — become a starter.
A PR-savvy player wouldn’t have gone down this road. Whatever issue Key has with the Jaguars, he will have at least two chances to settle that score when the teams meet next season.
In the big picture, Arden Key leaving the Jaguars had little to do with being disrespected.
It was about what it always is in free agency: business.
Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Arden Key went to Titans to become starter, not any Jaguars disrespect