The Jets released the popular wide receiver Thursday, apparently clearing the way for veteran Derrick Mason to sign with the team. But in a late twist to the story, Rex Ryan said that was the way Cotchery wanted it.
"It was tough," Ryan said a few hours after the move. "J-Co wanted to ... he asked for a trade or to be released, and that's what happened."
Earlier in the day, Cotchery said, "I love being a Jet," and it appeared it wasn't his idea to leave. Cotchery, the subject of recent trade rumors, said he believed he would be cut if Mason -- whom the Jets brought in for a visit -- passed his physical.
NFL.com senior writer Steve Wyche reported that Mason was in the building Thursday, but he hadn't made a decision on joining the Jets.
The Jets didn't have an immediate announcement on Mason but said they had parted ways with Cotchery. And, Ryan said, the possibility of Mason coming to New York wasn't a factor in Cotchery leaving. Ryan added that the Jets never were planning to trade or release Cotchery until the receiver approached them.
Cotchery's agent, Jack Scharf, didn't immediately respond to telephone and email messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Cotchery, 29, was a fourth-round draft pick by the Jets in 2004 and worked his way into the starting lineup after a few seasons. Sure-handed and consistent, he has 353 career catches for 4,474 yards and 18 touchdowns.
"My main thing right now is focusing on moving forward," Cotchery said after the team's morning walkthrough. "I'm healthy and I'm ready to play football. Sometimes, things don't work out the way you want them to work out."
Cotchery was gone by the time the afternoon practice started, and Ryan wasn't surprised by the move.
"I probably saw it coming for a little while," Ryan said. "But I guess I didn't want to admit it."
Mason, a free agent who knows Ryan from their days in Baltimore together, met with the Jets on Thursday. He's 37 and would bring a wealth of experience to the position, which includes Santonio Holmes and the newly signed Plaxico Burress.
"We'll see," Ryan said of Mason. "Derrick's a tremendous football player. He's a great competitor. I'd like to have Derrick, that's for sure."
Burress, a former Michigan State star just as Mason was, was all for the possibility of him joining the Jets.
"I love D-Mase," Burress said. "He's a Pro Bowl receiver, had a lot of success in this league. He's been consistent since Day 1 that he stepped in here. If he does come here, it would be great. I would love to have him. It would be another Spartan in the building. I welcome all Spartans."
But leaving was one of the most respected players on the team.
"He's the ultimate teammate, the ultimate competitor," Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez said of Cotchery. "That's why it hurts to see him leave."
Sanchez added that he spoke to Cotchery earlier in the week and tried to change his mind about wanting to leave. Ryan also said he tried to convince Cotchery to stay.
Mason, who has 924 catches and 66 touchdowns in 14 seasons, would replace Cotchery as the team's No. 3 receiver. Teams might have been wary of trading for Cotchery because of his uncertain health status; he was on the physically-unable-to-perform list while recovering from offseason back surgery. So, the Jets apparently stopped searching for a trading partner and just cut Cotchery.
"Everyone wants that dream scenario where they want to play their entire career with one team," Cotchery said. "It happens, but it doesn't happen that often."
One of the most memorable catches of Cotchery's career came last season when he was running a route in a game against the Cleveland Browns and felt pain in his groin. Instead of going down and staying there, the receiver hopped several times to get open and made a diving catch in the middle of the field -- a play that many described as gutty and one of the team's highlights on its way to the AFC Championship Game.
"He's done a lot for this organization, and he has a clean record," cornerback Darrelle Revis said with a laugh, perhaps a backhanded shot at some Jets who've had legal issues. "He's not out here getting himself in trouble. He's representing himself in the right way. You've got to try to at least reward a guy or keep him on the team as long as you can because those guys, you want to try to replace them, but you really can't."
Cotchery also earned respect in the Jets' locker room as a mentor for younger receivers on the team and for being a level-headed, quiet leader.
"You have to be a man about it, this business," Revis said. "It's a cutthroat business, but also this is what we signed up for."
When asked if he was resigned to the fact that his days with the team were numbered, Cotchery paused for a moment.
"Yeah," he said, smiling. "Yeah ... yeah."
Turns out, he was right. Cotchery mentioned how he always believed Chad Pennington would retire as a member of the Jets, but then the former quarterback was cut after the team traded for Brett Favre in 2008. That stunned Cotchery, and he saw similarities in the situations.
"It's tough when you've been with one team for a long time and you have to move on," he said. "It's just like you have to make that job change. If you've been in one place for a long time, you have to make a tough decision, but, hey, I'm ready for it."
Cotchery hadn't spoken to the Jets' receivers as a group before talking to the media, but had discussed things with some of them individually.
"They're going to be all right," he said, "just like myself."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.