Skip to main content

Main Area

Main

Stories behind every NFL team name

Stories behind every NFL team name
1/Dustin Bradford // Getty Images

Stories behind every NFL team name

There are no National Football League teams in the magical world of Oz, but there are Lions, Bengals, and Bears. The NFL has 32 teams—each with a unique story about how it came to be. Some names were chosen by fan contests, while others had ties to former professional sports teams. There is an abundance of animals names, and other monikers steeped in a rich history. Then there are teams like the Washington Redskins, whose name continues to be a lightning rod for controversy.

For 100 years, the Arizona Cardinals kept the same nickname as the team moved from Chicago to St. Louis for the 1960-1961 season, then in 1988 to Arizona, where the Cardinals remain today. As the NFL got older, relocation became a common theme—but we will explain the intricacies of how franchises in Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Baltimore are all intertwined (and even how the Baltimore Ravens attempted to buy the Indianapolis Colts name, despite having no previous ties to the franchise).

There are some football teams with well-known nicknames—the Jets are often referred to as Gang Green—but we also divulge how some teams’ official names are sparingly used (the Jets’ neighbors, the Giants, are actually known as the New York Football Giants). Sometimes a team name can tell you a lot about local history: The Vikings of Minnesota draw upon the area’s strong ties to Scandinavia; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are dripping in local legend related to Florida’s piratey past. Whether it’s a history lesson or tracing the origins of a team’s former homes, this list of football etymology will be sure to get you primed for the upcoming season, which will be the NFL’s 100th anniversary.

Let’s kick off the countdown with the folks who earned their nickname by buying boxes of used team jerseys.

You may also like: Famous NFL players from every state

Arizona Cardinals
2/Christian Petersen // Getty Images

Arizona Cardinals

- Year founded: 1920
- Overall record: 560-762-40
- Previous team names: Chicago Cardinals, St. Louis Cardinals, Phoenix Cardinals

Despite locations in three cities, the Cardinals have kept the same name for almost 100 years. The team initially bought used football jerseys from the University of Chicago, garments that faded over time. Chris O’Brien, the team’s founder, called the new shade “Cardinal red.” The Cardinals have never won a Super Bowl, coming closest in Super Bowl XLIII.

Atlanta Falcons
3/Kevin C. Cox // Getty Images

Atlanta Falcons

- Year founded: 1966
- Overall record: 368-466-6

In the 1960s, the American Football League and NFL were interested in adding a team in Atlanta. Before the NFL introduced the franchise in 1966, a naming contest was held, and Julia Elliott, a local teacher, chose Falcons because, "The falcon is proud and dignified, with great courage and fight. It never drops its prey. It is deadly, and has a great sporting tradition." The line “never drops its prey” is quite ironic—in Super Bowl LI, the Falcons led the Patriots 28-3, only to give up 31 unanswered points and lose the game.

Baltimore Ravens
4/Patrick Smith // Getty Images

Baltimore Ravens

- Year founded: 1996
- Overall record: 215-176-1

Shortly after Art Modell moved his football team in Cleveland to Baltimore, panel discussions, focus groups, and fan polls were held to come up with a new name. Ravens, which draws upon the famous Edgar Allan Poe poem, was a consistent choice. Poe lived and died in Baltimore, where the Ravens have celebrated two Super Bowl wins.

Buffalo Bills
5/Maddie Meyer // Getty Images

Buffalo Bills

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 429-493-8

A Buffalo football club in the All-America Football Conference was named Bisons, but in 1947 held a renaming contest. Bills was chosen after Buffalo Bill Cody, and 13 years later when Buffalo placed a team in the AFL, Buffalo Bills was kept intact. The Bills have reached four Super Bowls but lost them all.

Carolina Panthers
6/Mike Ehrmann // Getty Images

Carolina Panthers

- Year founded: 1995
- Overall record: 199-201-1

The Richardson family, who originally owned the Panthers, came up with the team name before their 1995 debut. They chose black, blue, and silver as the colors to create synergy with the name. The Panthers have reached two Super Bowls but are still awaiting their first championship.

Chicago Bears
7/Joe Robbins // Getty Images

Chicago Bears

- Year founded: 1920
- Overall record: 778-602-42
- Previous team names: Decatur Staleys, Chicago Staleys

The Bears have been with the NFL since its start (even though they were originally called the Staleys). According to the franchise, the team name switched to Bears on Jan. 28, 1922. A.E. Staley, the franchise’s former owner, transferred the team to George Halas in 1921, with a promise to keep the name as Staleys for one year. Since then, the Bears have won nine league championships (only one was a Super Bowl, though) and have put the most players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Cincinnati Bengals
8/Tom Szczerbowski // Getty Images

Cincinnati Bengals

- Year founded: 1968
- Overall record: 362-441-4

At first, the new AFL team in Cincinnati considered calling themselves “Buckeyes,” but the name’s strong ties to Ohio State University canceled that idea. Paul Brown, an investor in the team, thought Bengals was a fitting nod to former football teams from the Cincinnati area. The Bengals reached two Super Bowls in the 1980s but fell both times to the San Francisco 49ers.

Cleveland Browns
9/Andrew Weber // Getty Images

Cleveland Browns

- Year founded: 1950
- Overall record: 532-514-14

Before the birth of the Browns, a contest was held to name the new team. A favored suggestion was Browns, after Paul Brown, who was already revered in the state of Ohio. It took some convincing, but Brown finally relented and allowed the franchise to use the Browns name. The Browns collected a host of titles in the 1950s, and one more in the 1960s, but since the advent of the Super Bowl they have not played for another championship.

Dallas Cowboys
10/Ronald Martinez // Getty Images

Dallas Cowboys

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 547-408-6

They like to call themselves “America’s Team,” but Cowboys is their official name. This came to be after the Cowboys were originally going tobe called the Rangers. But the existence of a baseball team with the same name led to change to avoid confusion. Since then, Dallas has been one of the NFL’s most successful franchises, winning five Super Bowls.

Denver Broncos
11/Dustin Bradford // Getty Images

Denver Broncos

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 499-433-10

After a new AFL franchise was awarded to Denver, the city held a contest to name the new club. Broncos was selected as the winner which was also the name of an area baseball team decades earlier. Since then, the Broncos have become a part of Denver culture (there is even a mythical bronco-like statue at the city’s airport) and have won three Super Bowls.

Detroit Lions
12/Leon Halip // Getty Images

Detroit Lions

- Year founded: 1930
- Overall record: 566-671-32
- Previous team names: Portsmouth Spartans

According to the book, “The Man Who Built the National Football League: Joe F. Carr,” Detroit’s NFL team came to be known as the Lions as a counterpart to the existing baseball team in the city, the Tigers. A team spokesman later said, “The lion is monarch of the jungle and we hope to be the monarch of the league.” The Lions won four NFL championships pre-AFL/NFL merger but have never reached a Super Bowl.

Green Bay Packers
13/Stacy Revere // Getty Images

Green Bay Packers

- Year founded: 1921
- Overall record: 777-593-38

Green Bay’s football team was sponsored by local packing companies; hence the name Packers. The Packers have won four Super Bowls, including the first two, and are among the most successful and popular teams in the league. Locals also often refer to themselves as “cheese heads” for wearing foam cheese hats to home games.

Houston Texans
14/Tim Warner // Getty Images

Houston Texans

- Year founded: 2002
- Overall record: 124-156-0

Houston’s expansion football franchise conducted months of research into devising a team name. Five candidates were selected—Apollos, Bobcats, Stallions, Texans, and Wildcatters. Texans was selected as the winner, with a live ceremony on ESPN2. The team has made five playoff appearances, all within the past decade.

Indianapolis Colts
15/Jamie Squire // Getty Images

Indianapolis Colts

- Year founded: 1953
- Overall record: 539-483-7
- Previous team names: Baltimore Colts

The Colts, like many sports teams, were named thanks to a fan contest. The team eventually moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis, but when football returned to Baltimore in 1996, the team that would eventually become the Ravens tried to buy the rights to the Colts nickname for $5 million. The Indianapolis Colts did not change names and won the franchise’s first Super Bowl in Indianapolis (and second overall) in 2007.

Jacksonville Jaguars
16/Stephen Pond // Getty Images

Jacksonville Jaguars

- Year founded: 1995
- Overall record: 177-221-0

In 1993, Ray Potts, a Jacksonville resident, won a naming contest for the city’s new NFL team with his entry of Jaguars. Potts won season tickets for his choice and a trip to the Super Bowl. The Jaguars have yet to reach a Super Bowl of their own.

Kansas City Chiefs
17/David Eulitt // Getty Images

Kansas City Chiefs

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 479-438-12
- Previous team names: Dallas Texans

Kansas City’s new football team in 1960 was definitely in need of a name change (the franchise’s previous name of Texans was not going to fly in Missouri). Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle was nicknamed “Chief” and, as a nod to his efforts to bring the formerly Dallas Texans to his city, team ownership named the team Chiefs. The Chiefs won their lone Super Bowl in 1970.

Los Angeles Chargers
18/Donald Miralle // Getty Images

Los Angeles Chargers

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 459-460-11
- Previous team names: San Diego Chargers

In 2017, the Chargers left San Diego for Los Angeles, with plans to play in a new stadium in the area in 2020. Frank Leahy, the Chargers’ first general manager, liked the “Charge!” bugle chant at USC games, and suggested the name Chargers. When they still resided in San Diego, the Chargers reached one Super Bowl and lost in 1995.

Los Angeles Rams
19/Sean M. Haffey // Getty Images

Los Angeles Rams

- Year founded: 1937
- Overall record: 589-588-21
- Previous team names: Cleveland Rams, Los Angeles Rams, St. Louis Rams

The Rams name has stayed the same through several moves, a moniker that was first coined in tribute to the strong Fordham Rams college football teams from the 1930s. The Rams were also the first team to wear a logo on their helmet, the now infamous Ram horns. Those helmets were victorious in Super Bowl XXXIV, but lost this past year’s Super Bowl to the New England Patriots.

Miami Dolphins
20/Maddie Meyer // Getty Images

Miami Dolphins

- Year founded: 1966
- Overall record: 472-381-4

According to the book, “The Power of a Name: The Origin of Professional Sports Team Nicknames and Their Most Valuable Players,” the Dolphins name was selected in a fan contest. The winner reportedly received two lifetime passes to home games. In addition, owner Joe Robbie liked the name because, “The Dolphin is one of the fastest and smartest creatures in the sea.” The 1972 Dolphins, if not the fastest and smartest, were certainly the best team in football, posting the NFL’s only perfect season that included a Super Bowl victory.

Minnesota Vikings
21/Adam Bettcher // Getty Images

Minnesota Vikings

- Year founded: 1961
- Overall record: 498-426-11

Vikings was a simple choice for the NFL’s new team in Minnesota, given the large numbers of residents with Scandinavian heritage in the state. Among the other candidates: Miners, Chippewas, and Voyageurs. The Vikings’ famous horn and “Skol” chant at home games have become franchise staples, prominent in the club’s most notable moments like after Stefon Diggs scored the game-winning touchdown in a 2018 divisional playoff game.

New England Patriots
22/Maddie Meyer // Getty Images

New England Patriots

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 537-411-9
- Previous team names: Boston Patriots

Many suggestions for the Boston area’s AFL team were historically themed. Minutemen and Colonials were options, but Patriots was most popular in a fan-entry contest. More than just a spirited band of rebels, the Patriots have developed into one of the NFL’s preeminent franchises, winning all six of their Super Bowls since 2001.

New Orleans Saints
23/Wesley Hitt // Getty Images

New Orleans Saints

- Year founded: 1967
- Overall record: 371-446-5

New Orleans was awarded an NFL franchise on Nov. 1, 1966—All Saints Day. Hence, the team became known as the Saints. For much of their history, the Saints were bumbling towards the bottom of the NFL—referred to by some fans as the “Aint’s”—but with Drew Brees at quarterback they won their first Super Bowl in 2010.

New York Giants
24/Jeff Zelevansky // Getty Images

New York Giants

- Year founded: 1925
- Overall record: 716-621-33

For much of the Giants’ early existence, there were two professional teams in New York with that name (baseball and football). In 1937, the NFL’s Giants officially changed their name to the “New York Football Giants” to distinguish themselves (occasionally, announcers will use the full name to add a little pomp). The Giants have also called themselves Super Bowl champions on four occasions.

New York Jets
25/Joe Robbins // Getty Images

New York Jets

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 413-504-8
- Previous team names: New York Titans

The Jets entered the AFL as the Titans (no relation to today’s Tennessee Titans) but changed their name in 1963 (new owner Sonny Werblin liked the color green and name Jets.) The Jets formerly played in New York, but their home stadium is now in New Jersey (like the Giants, they retain New York in their name). The franchise’s pinnacle occurred in 1969, when Joe Namath and the underdog Jets upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.

Oakland Raiders
26/Wesley Hitt // Getty Images

Oakland Raiders

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 491-442-11
- Previous team names: Los Angeles Raiders

The Raiders will soon call Las Vegas home after 60 years of bouncing between Oakland and Los Angeles. Originally, the team was going tobe called the Señors, but the name and the planned orange-and-black uniforms were not well received. Instead, the Raiders logo and silver-and-black outfits have become iconic looks in professional sports.

Philadelphia Eagles
27/Abbie Parr // Getty Images

Philadelphia Eagles

- Year founded: 1933
- Overall record: 600-623-26

Inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which used the eagle as a symbol, Philadelphia’s football team called themselves the Eagles. Locals adore the name—they chant “E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles!” at home games and flooded the streets of Philadelphia after winning their first Super Bowl in 2018.

Pittsburgh Steelers
28/Justin Berl // Getty Images

Pittsburgh Steelers

- Year founded: 1933
- Overall record: 659-569-21
- Previous team names: Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh’s NFL team first shared the same name as the city’s baseball team but changed to Steelers in 1940. Steelers was a nod to the city’s steel-making heritage. During World War II, when many players went to serve in the military, the Steelers combined with the Eagles to become the “Steagles.” The alliance was short-lived, and the Steelers won six Super Bowls on their own.

San Francisco 49ers
29/Robert Reiners // Getty Images

San Francisco 49ers

- Year founded: 1950
- Overall record: 601-507-16

The 49ers were named after the pioneers who rushed to California in 1849 in search of gold. The 49ers have struck gold in terms of Super Bowl wins five times. Currently, the team actually plays in Santa Clara, south of San Francisco.

Seattle Seahawks
30/Kevin C. Cox // Getty Images

Seattle Seahawks

- Year founded: 1976
- Overall record: 360-347-1

Reportedly, 20,365 entries were submitted to name Seattle’s NFL team, with Seahawks selected as the winner. The Seahawks fans call themselves the “12th man” for their vocal support at home games and cheered emphatically when Seattle won Super Bowl XLVIII.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
31/Will Vragovic // Getty Images

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

- Year founded: 1976
- Overall record: 266-424-1

Connected to the legend of Jose Gaspar and his pirate exploits near Florida, Tampa Bay took on the Buccaneers nickname. Although they struggled mightily in their infancy (even going 0-14 in their first year), the Bucs had a memorable swashbuckling logo and “creamsicle” uniforms. They ditched the look toward the end of the 20th century and then won a Super Bowl in 2003.

Tennessee Titans
32/Logan Bowles // Getty Images

Tennessee Titans

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 446 - 483 - 6
- Previous team names: Houston Oilers, Tennessee Oilers

The Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee in 1997 and originally kept their nickname. But two years removed from Texas, the franchise’s ownership decided the team needed a new identity in its new locale. Titans, a name that once belonged to the New York Jets franchise, was selected. That first season as the Tennessee Titans, the team reached the Super Bowl.

Washington Redskins
33/Al Bello // Getty Images

Washington Redskins

- Year founded: 1932
- Overall record: 623 - 609 - 28
- Previous team names: Boston Braves, Boston Redskins

Washington’s football team is the most controversial name in the NFL. The team was originally called Braves but in 1933 switched to Redskins at the bequest of owner George P. Marshall. The team’s current owners have shown no inclination to change the name despite pressure from the public.

2018 All rights reserved.