A day of reckoning for Vikings' owner

For the past several months, Red McCombs has reiterated that he will wait until the 2004 season concludes before deciding whether to exercise the option on Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Tice's contract for the 2005 campaign.

Turns out that the Vikings' owner doesn't have the luxury of waiting that long to determine the fate of his head coach.

Two league sources with knowledge of the contract confirmed on Tuesday for ESPN.com that McCombs must exercise the one-year option for 2005 by Jan. 1. That is significant, since the regular season does not end until Jan. 2, when the Vikings play at Washington. It is possible that Minnesota's playoff fate, likely a key element in Tice's future with the franchise, won't be determined until the outcome of that game with the Redskins.

The existence of the Jan. 1 date for exercising the option was first reported on Tuesday by the Star-Tribune of Minneapolis.

"Call it dumb luck, fate, good negotiating, whatever, but that [Jan. 1] date has become a real sticky [issue] for the Vikings," said one source, who has reviewed the contract. "It's basically a free agency date for the coach. All this talk about, 'Well, we'll wait until the end of the season,' it's moot now. The contract language is basically unambiguous. Either they keep [Tice] by Jan. 1 or he can walk after the deal expires [on Jan. 31]."

This is the final "solid" season of the contract Tice signed after he replaced Dennis Green at the end of the 2001 campaign. But the contract allowed McCombs, at his discretion, to retain Tice for 2005, at a base salary of $1 million, by exercising the option. For months, it was believed that decision would not have to be made until the season officially ended, but the Jan. 1 date changes that and moves the decision on Tice's future forward.

If the option is not exercised, it will default, and Tice will become a coaching free agent at the end of next month. McCombs could exercise the option, and then fire Tice, but he would then owe the coach $800,000 of the $1 million base salary stipulated for 2005.

Tice has compiled a record of 22-24. But his team disintegrated in 2003, finishing out of the playoffs despite a 6-0 start, and has slumped again in the second half of this season. A difficult loss to Seattle last Sunday left Minnesota at 7-6, one game behind the division-leading Green Bay Packers in the NFC North, but still very much in the playoff chase in the watered-down conference.

McCombs has wavered at times in his support but lately has indicated that he would keep Tice for 2005 and perhaps beyond. Last week, when Tice curiously lobbied publicly for a shot at the University of Washington coaching vacancy, the Vikings disagreed with a media characterization that the coach was in limbo.

"Mike has a contract until the end of the season and then we have an option to extend it a year," McCombs said. "That's not in limbo at all."

The Huskies job has since been filled by former Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham.

There are various factors that complicate the situation, not the least of which is the fact that McCombs still has the franchise on the market, although a sale does not appear to be imminent. Any new owner -- if McCombs could unearth someone to pay the $600 million price tag he has affixed to the Vikings -- would probably want to choose his own coach.

Another element is that the Vikings are coming off a painful loss, one in which Tice and his staff are being criticized for a dubious call late in the game, a play on which star wide receiver Randy Moss threw an end zone interception on an end-around play. Tice has defended the play-calling, and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, but the bizarre call is still viewed by many as a microcosm of the Vikings' problems under the current staff.

Tice acknowledged Monday that he has begun to think about his job security, and that his family has made known its concerns as well.

"If I win, everything takes care of itself," Tice said. "If we lose, it's hard for any owner to say, 'Should I support this guy? Or should I get rid of this loudmouth?' If I was 0-3 [in the final three games of the season], I know what I'd do. I'd get rid of me, too."

But apparently, because of the Jan. 1 stipulation in Tice's contract, McCombs can't wait for all three games to play out.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.