Rex Ryan Jets into lead
Wednesday, January 14th 2009, 1:26 AM

The Jets' coaching search got off to a clumsy start, with owner Woody Johnson out of the country and with Bill Cowher in and out of contention, but the process finally is starting to crystallize.

If the Steelers beat the Ravens Sunday in the AFC Championship Game, the Jets will have their head coach in place by early next week, according to league sources. Barring an unexpected development, perhaps another team stealing him away, that coach will be Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.

You think Jets officials might be waving Terrible Towels on Sunday night?

It has come down to Ryan, Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Cards assistant head coach Russ Grimm, sources said.

That the Jets haven't moved quickly on Spagnuolo or Schottenheimer, neither of whom is involved in the playoffs, is a blatant indication that Ryan is the preferred choice. Like Ryan, Grimm still is in the playoffs, but he's believed to be a fallback candidate.

The Jets still are hoping to re-interview Spagnuolo; the outcome of that meeting could influence their final decision. Curiously, it hasn't happened yet, sources said; the Giants' season ended on Sunday. Spagnuolo's first interview was Jan.3, during the Giants' bye week, but Johnson didn't participate because he was on vacation.

Once the Johnson-Spagnuolo sit-down occurs - if it occurs - the Jets will be able to make a final decision, sources said. They're still high on Spagnuolo, but he didn't blow them away in the first interview and they seem eager to do it again.

Johnson and GM Mike Tannenbaum met with Ryan for several hours Sunday in Baltimore, and Johnson came away impressed, according to a source. Using an interviewing technique he learned from former Ravens coach Brian Billick, Ryan gave a PowerPoint presentation that outlined his philosophy, practice scripts, etc.

The Jets also are smitten with Ryan's creative defensive game plans, a big factor in the Ravens' playoff run. One potential stumbling block with Ryan could be his choice for offensive coordinator. The Jets would like to retain Schottenheimer; it's unclear if Ryan is on board with that.

Thing is, the Jets could face some competition for Ryan. He's also a leading candidate for the Rams, who also are considering Spagnuolo (the interview is scheduled for tomorrow in St. Louis) and Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.

Spagnuolo also is expected to be on the Chiefs' short list. Former Patriots VP Scott Pioli was hired Tuesday as the Chiefs' general manager and he's expected to fire Herm Edwards, creating another vacancy. The Lions and Raiders also are looking for coaches, so it has evolved into a game of musical chairs, with four teams vying for three or four hot candidates that are being considered by multiple teams.

The Jets aren't going to make a hasty decision.

"This is an important choice and the Jets are going to take the time necessary to make sure it's the right choice," a person close to the search said. "The team is seeking a dynamic, passionate leader that can create a winning atmosphere where players enjoy coming to work and are held accountable."