[size=18px]Tice's time of uncertainty[/size]

His contract is nearly up, and his future is in owner Zygi Wilf's hands. The Vikings head coach only wants to know: Should he stay or should he go?

Kevin Seifert, Star Tribune
Last update: December 26, 2005 at 9:02 PM

The essence of their season is over. A few Vikings players even began packing up their lockers Monday, a day after they were eliminated from playoff contention by a 30-23 loss at Baltimore. They will finish either 8-8 or 9-7 for the third consecutive season, but even the certainty of their season's fate apparently will not trigger an immediate decision on the future of coach Mike Tice.

Terming his staff "lame-duck" as it prepares for a meaningless season finale against Chicago, Tice expressed hope Monday that owner Zygi Wilf will announce Tice's fate "sooner rather than later." But Tice, whose contract expires Jan. 31 along with those of his assistants, said he doesn't expect to hear from Wilf until next week at the earliest.

Wilf and Jimmy Sexton, Tice's agent, had a brief conversation about two weeks ago. Wilf told Sexton they would discuss the issue after the season, and there were no indications Monday that Wilf -- who was unavailable for comment -- has altered that plan following his team's elimination from playoff contention.

The unusual situation left Winter Park draped Monday in a haze, with players and coaches considering both the short- and long-term implications of Wilf's pending announcement.

"I don't know what Mr. Wilf is basing his decision on," Tice said. "He might already have made his decision. I don't know. I would be a liar if I said the only thing on my plate right now is beating the Bears. I have children, a life and a wife. And it is also my job to make sure everyone doesn't walk around depressed in the building."

In previous seasons, the Vikings have begun offseason planning meetings two days after their final game. If Wilf decides to rehire him, Tice said, it would be important to do it quickly.

"The thing we all have to understand is the offseason doesn't slow down," Tice said. "[Next] Tuesday morning, the train keeps rolling. We have to evaluate the roster. We have to evaluate the coaching staff. We have to give the coaches some time [off], and we have to get ready to go to the Senior Bowl. So the train doesn't stop, and hopefully there will be some type of indication of our status sooner rather than later.

"Earlier in the week would certainly be a lot better than late in the week."

The Vikings have changed coaches only twice in the past 14 seasons -- from Jerry Burns to Dennis Green in 1992 and from Green to Tice in 2002 -- and most players weren't sure what to make of the situation Monday. Is Wilf intending to keep Tice, but simply enforcing his pledge to avoid contract matters during the season? Or is a change already in the works?

"The players' job is to play," linebacker Keith Newman said. "Our job is not to demand who our next coach is or to worry about who our next coach is. Regardless of who our next coach is, our job is to play."

While he wouldn't provide an assessment of the players' opinion, he did offer a telling anecdote.

"One of my old defensive coordinators, Jerry Gray in Buffalo, always said that when you think the grass is greener on the other side, you're not taking care of your own grass. By that, you're saying if you think it's going to be better by somebody else coming in, then you're not doing what you're supposed to do. That still rings true."

Tice is not the only man affected. The contracts of all 17 assistant coaches also will expire next month.

"Sometimes younger coaches can kind of hit the panic button," offensive coordinator/line coach Steve Loney said. "They say, 'Oh my gosh, where am I going to work next year?' They've got kids to move and all that stuff. Those kind of pressures can be unsettling. This is my 32nd year of coaching. The only way I know is just to do things the best I can. If it's not good enough, it's not good enough."

Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell said anyone evaluating this year's coaching job should recognize the players' effort level throughout the season -- especially after a 2-5 start and including their ability to force a Baltimore field goal late in the fourth quarter Sunday night.

"We missed the playoffs," Cottrell said, "but I thought we had a pretty good rebound where a lot of teams would have gone the other way and stayed the other way. I think that's a huge positive for the job that we've done."