Golden years are here for NFL

The 24-karat smile Chris Johnson flashed on Thursday had less to do with his gold-toothed grill than with his new gold-capped contract extension, four years and $30 million guaranteed, which the Tennessee Titans bestowed upon him.

And what a perfect metaphor — the teeth, not the contract — for what has been going on in the NFL for just more than a month, since the players and owners reached agreement on a 10-year labor deal.

Everything is turning to gold.

It is one thing for Johnson, who has been the NFL’s leading rusher over the past three seasons, to be paid like it.

It is another thing for Eric Weddle, a solid if unspectacular Chargers safety, to have a $13 million signing bonus bestowed upon him — which, as Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark noted, is more (by about $4 million) than the Steelers will pay this season for him and Troy Polamalu.

It is another thing for Tampa Bay to guarantee punter Michael Koenen $6.5 million after he was 28th in the league in net average last season while kicking for Atlanta.

The last month has seemed less like free agency and taking care of your own, as with Johnson and Michael Vick, than the NFL’s own stimulus package.

It is these silly numbers, and seemingly silly deals, that make you wonder what all the fuss was that led to the lockout.

If NFL owners are tossing money out like Mardi Gras doubloons, and the players are considering driving Brinks trucks to work, then what were they quibbling over?

What was it, again, that they were going to shut down the 2011 season for?

(These types of questions make NBA owners cringe, knowing that if — or when — the lockout eats away at the regular season, they’ll be accused of crying wolf when it comes to poverty.)

And yet, in reality, these paydays are less the result of Jerry Jones- and Dan Snyder-like Boys Gone Wild spending sprees than they are careful considerations and the terms of the new labor deal.

The Eagles, whose profligate spending garnered headlines this summer, netted top-tier talent such as defensive lineman Jason Babin and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, as well as Vince Young, Ronnie Brown, Steve Smith and Antonio Rodgers-Cromartie (in a trade for backup quarterback Kevin Kolb).

But the Eagles simply were shrewd. They properly bet that if there was a 2011 season, there once again would be a salary cap. And, since the rules of a cap-less season had left far fewer free agents in 2010, there would be a bonanza this summer.

They also reworked caps in recent years so that the cap numbers would be lower in 2011, giving them plenty of space.

The Eagles were not alone. Carolina, which spent just $77.4 million a year ago, has doled out more than $100 million in signing bonuses to remake a 2-14 team.

“I’m not really shocked,” Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik, who signed Koenen, told’s Alex Marvez this week. “We knew the money was going to be pretty strong. There are some teams that have been hungry to spend for a couple years.”

Another reason more money appears available is that the rookie pool has been redistributed to veterans. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, the top overall pick, got $22 million guaranteed — less than half of the $50 million that Sam Bradford got the year before from St. Louis as the No. 1 pick.

This is where the players’ leap of faith appears to have paid off. They acceded to the owners’ demand that the players take a smaller cut of revenue, knowing that if revenue grew enough, the salary pool would be larger and the salary cap floor — the minimum that clubs were required to spend — also would be raised.

As some teams bump against the cap in future seasons, and veterans who signed deals in recent years chafe at being paid less than market value — Bears perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs is Exhibit A — it will be interesting whether the pool continues to grow.

And whether all that glitters remains golden.