For the longest time, like Vince Wilfork, Willie McGinest was among some of the key faces of the franchise on the defensive side of the football.

When someone talked about the Patriots’ defense, McGinest joined Ty Law, Tedy Bruschi, and Lawyer Milloy as one of the key players who defined that group.  They were all loved among the fan base and all were well-respected guys who even now are appreciated among those who followed this team closely enough to appreciate what they did.

However, with the exception of Bruschi, McGinest ultimately joined each of the aforementioned players in that none of them were able to finish their careers here, and even more importantly, for the most part, they didn’t leave on their own terms and were all business decisions made with the intention of the ultimate goal, winning.

What happened to each one is just part of what eventually happens in this league.  

It started with Milloy.  In 2003 he was in the fourth year of a seven-year, $35-million deal carrying a $5.8-million cap hit and the team had been trying to negotiate with him to try and lower that number.  Bill Belichick said shortly after Milloy’s release that both sides “tried all the way to, truly, to try to find a way to make it work”.

They couldn’t get it done.  So he was cut.

He went on to play in Buffalo that season and beat his former team in the famous “They hate their coach” game during a 31-0 opening day loss by the Patriots out in Buffalo.  From there he played for Buffalo until he was released after the 2005 season, before landing in Atlanta, and then in Seattle in 2009.  He’s since retired.

Law would soon follow.  His cap number in February of 2005 just weeks after he was a spectator with a foot injury while his team went on to win a championship without him was $12.5 million.  The result? He was cut.

As for McGinest?  He carried a $7-million cap number after the 2005 season and at 34-years old the Patriots made the decision to part ways with the veteran, with the beloved defensive end becoming the latest casualty of the salary cap.

McGinest recently spoke to the Herald and admitted he didn’t want to leave the Patriots, but the situation prevented him from staying with the team that drafted him.

“I was a little bitter when I left, because I didn’t want to leave,” McGinest told the Boston Herald. “I was happy where I was. I was with a great group of guys. I was in a system I knew, I built a relationship with the fan base and the community. We were successful. It’s always hard to leave something that’s successful. The teammates I played with . . . I loved my guys. It’s not something I wanted to do, but the situation dictated otherwise.”

McGinest went on to finish his career in Cleveland before retiring following the 2008 season.

As for Bruschi?  He battled back from a stroke in 2005 and was still able to play at a high level before he eventually recognized he couldn’t play anymore the way he wanted to, and he retired on his own terms before the start of the 2009 season.

He’s one of the only Patriots players, aside from potentially Kevin Faulk, who went out on their own terms during the Bill Belichick era.  Vince Wilfork is in the middle of a situation that could potentially spell the end of another beloved player’s tenure in New England, but as we know it’s a business.  This is a team that has won 10 or more games in every season since 2002, which is a staggering statistic in the salary cap era.

Sometimes difficult decisions have to be made no matter how much affection the team and the fans have for a player, and unfortunately that’s just the nature of the business.  McGinest compared his case to Wilfork’s and admitted he’s not sure how it’s going to end.

“His case, my case, every case is probably different,” McGinest told the Herald. “My deal was up. I had a ghost year with an inflated number that we put into the contract that we knew I wasn’t going to make, just so we could tear the contract up and restructure. I had a three-year deal, and that was the fourth year. It was a high number, kind of like (Darrelle) Revis (that) they won’t pay, but it’s for cap purposes.

“I don’t know what took place with (Wilfork), but you have to understand Vince is probably frustrated. He’s coming off an injury. He’s worked hard. He’s one of the best at his position. Like all of us, when you’re a Patriot, and you put in a lot of work, you feel like you’re going to retire there. It’s tough when they come to you and ask you to take a paycut.”

Seeing if history repeats himself with Wilfork will be just another reminder that no matter the player, this team’s ultimate goal continues to be trying to win football games. Sometimes it’s just a tough byproduct of ending eras with players that neither side wants to see go, but in order to keep it going it needs to be done.

Whether they, or we, like it or not.