Before the 2005 season, Willie McGinest said he wanted to leave the game on his own terms, and he didn't imagine that day would come any time soon.
He didn't mention the possibility of leaving the Patriots on any terms.
Well, that day came before he would have liked, and even before the team would have liked, but it is the reality of life in the NFL.
Yesterday, one week after the Patriots released the 12-year veteran to avoid paying him a sizable roster bonus and absorbing a huge $8 million salary cap hit for the 2006 season, McGinest accepted a three-year, $12 million deal (half of it guaranteed) to join the Cleveland Browns.
''It's going to be a little different," McGinest said at a news conference in Cleveland after he took a look at his new Browns jersey. ''I had a great run [in New England]. We did some really good things.
''I'm not bitter at all," he told the Globe later. ''I'm not upset with the Patriots. I've been to Pro Bowls. I've won Super Bowls. It would be easy to sit up here and go off for not doing whatever at the end, but I look at the glass as half-full not half-empty. I got to build my name in a great community and play with a lot of great players and coaches."
McGinest, 34, reunites with Browns second-year coach Romeo Crennel, the Patriots' defensive line coach when New England drafted McGinest with the fourth overall pick in 1994, the first selection the team made after Robert Kraft became owner of the franchise.
''It's horrible and I'm very sad about it," said Kraft, who called McGinest to congratulate him on the signing and wish him well with the rest of his career. ''This a very sad day for me.
''It's a difficult part of this business . . . free agency. But no matter what happens from here on in, Willie will always have a special place in Patriots' history and in my heart. He's someone who I became pretty close with, and the same goes for his family, his wonderful parents. He's been here as long as I've been here as an owner, and he's made tremendous contributions to this team and community. He was always an outstanding individual both on and off the field."
McGinest posted three sacks in his first game in Foxborough -- an exhibition against New Orleans Aug. 5, 1994. On Jan. 7, in his last home game as a Patriot, No. 55 had an NFL playoff-record 4 1/2 sacks in a win over Jacksonville.
Between those two dates, the Patriots' franchise underwent tremendous change, playing in four Super Bowls, winning three. McGinest, a key member of all those teams, is third on the team's all-time sacks list (78) behind Andre Tippett (100) and Julius Adams (79 1/2), and he is the NFL's all-time leader in postseason sacks (16).
Four others who ended up playing linebacker were also selected in the first round in 1994 -- Trev Alberts (No. 5 to Indianapolis), Jamir Miller (No. 10, Arizona), John Thierry (No. 11, Chicago), and Rob Fredrickson (No. 22, Oakland). Not a one remains in the league, and none came close to having the impact in his career that McGinest had with the Patriots.
''Willie McGinest had an incredible career with the New England Patriots," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in a statement. ''He will always be regarded as a smart, talented, tough team leader who infused professionalism to the team every day and contributed greatly to many championship seasons."
McGinest probably would have had his role reduced this season with the Patriots, and he'll primarily be used as a pass rusher with the Browns, but New England's defense certainly takes a hit with his departure.
''We haven't talked about [his role with the Browns]," said McGinest. ''I'll be on the left side, setting the edge and rushing the passer and providing some leadership. I want to help these guys get going in the right direction. It's not like I'm Superman. I'm just a piece of the puzzle."
Life for the Patriots has been much easier the last dozen years knowing McGinest's physical presence (6 foot 5 inches, 270 pounds) was something foes had to deal with. And his leadership in the locker room may have been just as valuable.
It is something Crennel knows very well, having witnessed it for seven years, including four as the Patriots' defensive coordinator (2001-04). ''He brings a tremendous amount of credibility to our team and franchise overall," Browns general manager Phil Savage said.
McGinest started every game last season, and of the players on the roster, only Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel have extensive experience on the outside, though Vrabel moved inside midway through last season.
Should Vrabel return to the wing, Monty Beisel, a starter early in the season, is the likely choice to take over in the middle next to Tedy Bruschi. Tully Banta-Cain and practice-squad linebacker Eric Alexander could be in the mix outside. And the Patriots have no other regular-set inside linebackers on the roster.
The team will look at drafting a linebacker with the No. 21 pick in the first round, and is likely to add another one or two through free agency. ''It's hard leaving somewhere you've been your whole career but you've got to prepare yourself," said McGinest. ''When they released me I was prepared to do what I needed to do. I'm in a good situation with a lot of young players who are hungry and want to win and a coach I can trust. It felt real nice here.
''I wish the Patriots the best. They have a good staff, they've always made good decisions bringing players in. But, of course, like any other place, they've got a lot of voids to fill.
''Now, I can't worry about that. I got to worry about what my job is here and winning games here. When they play us, they got to reckon with us. They got to deal with us now. So I'm not concerned about what they're doing or going through at all."
The Patriots are believed to be among the teams most interested in Keyshawn Johnson, who was released by Dallas Tuesday. But Johnson told the Globe yesterday that the Patriots have not contacted him to discuss joining the team.
''I would hope and expect that we'll talk before I do anything, but nothing has happened as yet," Johnson said.
Johnson, who is representing himself in negotiations, said he is likely to sign with a new team within a week. He was due to make $2.5 million in 2006 with the Cowboys, and is looking for more than that on average on a three- or four-year deal.
Free agent wide receiver Troy Brown has scheduled a visit with the Jets for today.