Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - A week ago, Bill Cowher was being discussed as a potential successor to Rex Ryan. On Wednesday, he found himself being asked about Ryan's suddenly resurgent coaching career.

First, the CBS analyst and former Steelers coach told WFAN that Ryan's work with the Jets so far in 2013 has been "awesome.'' Later, in an interview with Newsday, he said he believes Ryan "has grown as a coach.''

"To me, it takes all kinds, and you have to be yourself,'' Cowher said when I asked about Ryan's image within the coaching fraternity, given a persona a tad less conventional than that of, say, Tom Coughlin. Or Bill Cowher.

"But the one thing I'll say about Rex: The longer you stay in this profession, the more you grow as a professional . . . He loves the game, coaches with a passion, and I respect that. I feel like that's how I used to coach. And at the same time, players love to play for him.''

The trick for Ryan has been walking the fine line between the public brashness that marked his early seasons and pulling back to the point he is not being true to himself.

"As opposed to making predictions about where they're going, he's talking about where they are,'' said Cowher, who will join Jim Nantz and Phil Simms as an analyst for Sunday's Steelers-Jets game.

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Let's stop for a moment and keep it real here. Everyone understood during Ryan's first two seasons that his act would grow stale when the Jets started missing the playoffs, and sure enough, that's what happened.

Then he toned himself down, and that also didn't go over well as the losses piled up. Now, with the Jets officially overachieving, Ryan is smiling again and people like me are writing columns like this celebrating the occasion.

Further helping Ryan's image is that Coughlin and the lordly Giants are 0-5, causing folks to notice that Ryan now is 37-32 in the regular season and Coughlin is 36-33 in the same span. Both have four playoff wins in that time, but Coughlin had the foresight to secure all of his in the same season.

Anyway, the Monday night victory over the Falcons jazzed up everyone in Jets Nation, especially those who work here. But players were careful to balance feeling good about themselves and not getting carried away.

Ryan was on his best behavior with reporters, especially on the delicate, complex subject of Mark Sanchez. He finally showed a flash of the old Rex after someone asked him to sum up Sanchez's legacy now that he is on IR and likely finished as a Jet. "We're acting like he's dead,'' Ryan said, exasperated.

Behind the scenes, Ryan seemingly has been energized by his return to a more hands-on approach to the defense, a unit that has been more reliable than an offense enduring the downs and ups of a rookie quarterback.

Linebacker Calvin Pace, an 11-year veteran, said he has watched Ryan go into teaching mode with young players.

"I think Rex coming back in our room has helped him out,'' Pace said. "That's his roots. He's a defensive guy, so it's been good for everybody. He just comes in and installs a defense like we've never seen it before, and it's helping everybody.''

Along those lines, Cowher said one of the Jets' best moves of the offseason was bringing in Marty Mornhinweg to run the offense, which "allowed Rex to go back to what he does best.''

There is plenty of time for it all to go horribly wrong, but so far, not bad for a guy for whom nothing was expected to go right, and who seven weeks ago was so out of sorts he was holding a news conference standing sideways.

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"He looks very relaxed,'' Cowher said. "A little of that swagger is back.''