McGinest unfazed by harsh reality of NFL

There isn't so much as a hint of bitterness in Willie McGinest's voice as he discusses his divorce from the New England Patriots after 12 seasons, three Super Bowl victories and a pair of Pro Bowl appearances. If anything, in fact, the veteran outside linebacker sounds downright enthusiastic about embarking on a second chapter of his NFL career, even pumped up by the prospect of what lies ahead for him.

And as he begins making visits this week to several of the many suitors that have contacted agent Gary Uberstine in the wake of his release, McGinest is eager to let teams know that, although he navigates the free-agent path for the first time, he'll be looking more through the windshield than at the rearview mirror.

It has been more than a week since the Patriots released McGinest to avoid paying him a $3.5 million roster bonus due this month. And although his celebrated tenure in New England never will be expunged from McGinest's personal memory bank, the Patriots certainly are beginning to fade into the horizon.

"Given what they did for me as a player and a person, I can't be bitter, and I actually owe them a great deal, certainly," said McGinest, in a weekend interview that marked his longest discussion of his unemployment. "But at the end of the day, they're the ones who put me out into free agency, right? I'll never close the door [on going back to New England]. But since they cut me, they haven't called at all to see how we might be able to [construct] a contract to bring me back, and I don't see it happening. So it looks like they're moving ahead without me. And I'm moving forward, too."

If the notion of McGinest's donning a different team's uniform in 2006 seems, well, un-Patriotic to the fans in New England, it isn't nearly as unfathomable to the veteran linebacker.

More than two weeks before McGinest's release, ESPN.com suggested in a "Tip Sheet" item that the universally respected McGinest might not be quite so indispensable to the Patriots because of the roster bonus and a prohibitive salary cap charge. Even before that, McGinest understood that his long and productive tenure with the only NFL team for which he ever played might end.

In truth, the 2006 segment of McGinest's contract always was viewed by him and the team as a so-called "dummy" year. It was an extension season added during a previous contract restructuring to help the Pats maneuver under the salary cap. But just because McGinest knew that he would never play under the terms of that restructuring, and that another readjustment would be necessary, doesn't mean he felt he wouldn't play at all for New England in 2006.

As last season wore on, though, the Patriots never began substantive talks at reworking the 2006 season, which also included a $3.5 million base salary. And when there were no such overtures, McGinest said Saturday, he didn't need a translator to help him decipher the handwriting on the wall.

McGinest, 34, has grown increasingly pragmatic during his career. He has watched teammates come and go in the free agency and salary cap era. He knew when New England released wide receiver Troy Brown last spring, rather than pay a $2.5 roster bonus, that there were no untouchables. The Patriots subsequently re-signed Brown to a one-year contract, but that might not happen for McGinest, who is ready to begin seeking out a new address and eager for a new challenge.

The official spin from the Patriots is that the team released McGinest when it did, before the start of the league year and free agency, out of respect for him. By doing so, management publicly emphasized, it provided McGinest a head start on the rest of the market. Given the respect the Patriots always have demonstrated toward their elder statesman, there probably is considerable truth to that rationalization.

But team president and vice chairman Jonathan Kraft, in acknowledging that McGinest embodied the essence of what the once-moribund franchise has become under the superb stewardship of the Kraft family, said in a Boston area radio interview: "It would be a really cool ending for him to retire as a Patriot. But it's a business."

A guy whose savvy extends well beyond the playing field, McGinest certainly understands that chillingly bottom line reality. So, now that the dust has settled and there has been no communication with the Patriots about a possible rapprochement, he's ready to get on with his business.

"There are a lot of great memories from all those seasons in New England," McGinest said, "but they're called memories for a reason. I've still got some history to go out and make."

His history with the Patriots has been an impressive one. At a recent charity event, fans and former Patriots teammates beseeched McGinest not to leave, a decision that requires bilateral action. One former teammate termed him "an icon," McGinest recalled Saturday, saying he was "really touched" by the assessment of his New England tenure and what he has meant to the franchise.

People forget that early in McGinest's career -- before Tom Brady and Richard Seymour and Adam Vinatieri -- he was a stalwart performer on a team that wasn't always good. In McGinest's first seven seasons, the Pats earned three playoff berths and won two division titles, but they also had four non-playoff years, including a pair of losing campaigns and one last-place finish.

The team's first-round choice in the 1994 draft -- after an All-American career at Southern California, to which he remains fiercely loyal -- McGinest has appeared in 171 regular-season games and 18 postseason contests. He has 701 tackles and 78 sacks (the most sacks of any defender in free agency) and 14 forced fumbles. His league-best 4½ sacks in this year's playoffs pushed his postseason total to 16. One can surmise that the teams that have contacted his agent, beginning the wooing process, watched tape of McGinest's dominating performance (eight tackles, 4½ sacks) in a wild-card win over Jacksonville.

Said the defensive coordinator from one NFC team expected to pursue McGinest: "There's something left in the tank. And, given his pride, what happened to him with [being released] will just motivate him that much more. But, yeah, we think he can still be a factor for a few more years."

McGinest said that, in assessing his suitors, he won't necessarily limit his options to playoff teams. Claiming three Super Bowl rings in a four-season span was nice, but the feat hasn't jaded McGinest, and he also will consider as possible landing spots teams he believes are poised to make a great leap forward, situations where he can provide some impetus for improvement.

Nor will he reduce his options to teams that play a 3-4 defensive front. Although he has reached a comfort level in that defense, and essentially defined himself as a hybrid edge player, McGinest still feels he can jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, drop into the flat and cover, and play stout versus the run. He will want to discuss, in detail, his role with any team that pursues him in free agency. Part of the role he will accentuate is that of leader, locker room presence and, if needed, tutor for younger players.

"That's part of what excites me, really, is the chance to maybe help a team and help other players achieve some of their goals," McGinest said. "You name it, and I've pretty much been there and done that. At this point in my career, the individual [accomplishments] aren't as important, not anymore. I'm developed. I'm primed. I'm a team guy who knows his role. If that role is with a new team, well, so be it."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.