How Every NFL Team Got Their Name

As much as the NFL looks polished today, it wasn’t always that way. There are countless clubs who entered the league but folded or relocated to another city in quick fashion. But things change, leagues end up merging, and new teams are welcomed. Five teams out of the remaining twenty-seven are still in the city in which they began, and even have the same nickname they were given on day one.

Out of the current 32 NFL teams, only half are still in their primary location or called by their original nickname.

Arizona Cardinals

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The team’s history goes back to 1898 when Chris O’Brien formed the Morgan Athletic Club. Years later, O’Brien would buy used red jerseys from the University of Chicago, describing the faded maroon as “Cardinal red.”

Since joining the NFL, the Cardinals have called three cities home. After 40 seasons in Chicago, they moved to St. Louis in 1960. The franchise was moved again in 1988 when William Bidwill selected Phoenix as the new home city.

Atlanta Falcons

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After the NFL awarded Atlanta with a franchise, life insurance executive Rankin M. Smith announced a contest to provide a nickname for the team. 1,300 people combined to suggest more than 500 names, with several fans submitting the nickname Falcons. Schoolteacher Julia Eliott wa declared the winner for the reason she provided.

“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.”

Baltimore Ravens

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There was a bit of controversy when pro football returned to Baltimore after a 12-year absence. But, fans played a pivotal role in the selection of the nickname Ravens. In fact, it was inspired by the poetry of former Baltimore resident, Edgar Allan Poe.

A telephone survey of 1,000 fans shortened the list to Ravens, Marauders, and Americans. Fans were then invited to participate in a phone-in poll conducted by the Baltimore Sun. Of 33,288 voters, more than 21,000 picked Ravens.

The next team ahead is one of two charter members of the NFL still in existence since the twenties.

Buffalo Bills

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The nickname was suggested as part of a fan contest in 1947. It was to rename Buffalo’s All-America Football Conference team, formerly known as the Bisons. The Bills nickname was a reference to frontiersman Buffalo Bill Cody.

The name was chosen over Bullets, Nickels and Blue Devils. From 1950 to 1960, the city was without a team until Ralph Wilson acquired a franchise in the AFL. After soliciting potential nicknames, Wilson chose to pay homage to the team’s defunct AAFC team.

Carolina Panthers

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Mark Richardson, the son of the former Panthers owner, chose the nickname for one reason. It’s a name in the family that signifies what they believe a team should be: powerful, sleek, and strong.

In addition, Richardson chose the team’s color scheme of black, blue, and silver. The choice raised concerns at the 1993 NFL meetings as the team name that features black in its color scheme would appeal to street gangs and reflect negatively on the league.

Chicago Bears

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The Bears are one of only two charter members of the NFL still in existence. In 1921, the Staley Starch Company decided to sponsor a football team. With George Halas as their representative, they joined the American Professional Football Association as the Chicago Staleys.

After the affiliation with Staley was completed, Halas renamed the team to the “Cubs” so fans would support them along with the baseball team. Instead, he noted that football players were bigger than baseball players. Thus, football players must be “Bears.”

America’s Team was going to be named something else until they went with the name Cowboys.

Cincinnati Bengals

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Planning for this franchise began three years before the Bengals played in the AFL in 1968. Paul Brown enjoyed success as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Brown named his newly awarded team the Bengals as recognition of previous football franchises with the same name in the thirties and forties.

Brown would return to the coaching ranks on the Bengals sidelines for the first eight seasons. Mike Brown would then succeed his father as team general manager.

Cleveland Browns

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There’s a debate as to how Cleveland got their franchise name. It’s believed it was named after its first coach and general manager, Paul Brown, or boxer Joe “Brown Bomber” Louis. Nevertheless, in 1945, team owner Mickey McBride conducted a fan contest in which the most popular submission was Browns.

According to one version of the story, Brown vetoed the nickname for Panthers instead. But, a local businessman owned the rights to the name. Brown would use his name and it stuck.

Dallas Cowboys

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America’s Team was originally going to be named the Steers. Team general manager, Texas E. Schramm, decided that having a castrated bovine as a mascot might be the subject of ridicule to the team. However, he decided to go with the Rangers instead.

But fearing that people would confuse the football team with the minor league baseball team, Schramm would change it. Ultimately, the nickname Cowboys was selected shortly before the season began in 1960.

The saga behind one of the oldest football teams began in August 1919.

Denver Broncos

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When Bob Howsam bought the team, he was limited financially. He purchased used uniforms from the extinct Copper Bowl. Around this same time in 1960, a name-the-team contest was being held. “Broncos”, submitted by Ward M. Vining, was the winner out of 162 entries.

In 1963, Jake Faulkner came in as head coach. His first order of business was to change the team’s colors from brown and gold to orange, blue, and white.

Detroit Lions

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Detroit radio executive George A. Richards purchased the Portsmouth, Ohio Spartans for $8,000 in 1934. After moving the franchise to the Motor City, the Spartans became the Lions. The team is likely derived from Detroit’s well-established baseball team.

As the team explained it, “The lion is the monarch of the jungle, and we hope to be the monarch of the league.” Despite all the ups and downs this franchise has faced, most fans would love to forget the 2008 season after a quote like that.

Green Bay Packers

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The saga of the Packers began in August 1919. The Indian Packing Company agreed to sponsor a football team under the direction of Earl “Curly” Lambeau. From there on, one of football’s oldest franchises became the Acme Packing Company and later folded.

But, five local businessmen, including Lambeau, labeled the “Hungry Five,” helped incorporate the team as a non-profit corporation. They then sold stock, raised funds and established the Green Bay Packers Board of Directors.

In 1993, the NFL unveiled plans to expand to Carolina as well as a city in Florida.

Houston Texans

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The 2002 expansion franchise became the sixth professional football team nicknamed the Texans. The Dallas Texans were an Arena Football League team from 1990 to 1993. Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, revived the arena football team in 2000.

After months of research and extensive focus, Apollos, Stallions, and Texans were the three finalists for the team identity. Bob McNair would officially announce the name as the Houston Texans on September 6, 2000.

Indianapolis Colts

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The Baltimore Colts, a member of the All-America Football Conference from 1947-1950, were named in honor of the region’s history of horse breeding. After merging into the NFL, the venture failed, and the franchise was moved to Dallas and was renamed the Texans.

The next year, the team was back in Baltimore. In 1983, the Colts began to discuss cities for a possible relocation, including Indianapolis. The team would move to that very city in 1984.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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In 1993, the NFL unveiled plans to expand to Carolina as well as Jacksonville. A name-the-team contest brought forth thousands of nicknames. Ray Potts was randomly selected as the contest winner with the submission “Jaguars.”

While jaguars aren’t native to the city itself, the oldest living jaguar in North America was housed in the Jacksonville Zoo. The Jaguars quickly became one of the dominant teams in the NFL as well as perennial playoff contenders in their early years.

One of the oldest NFL franchises began their football life in Cleveland in 1937.

Kansas City Chiefs

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Lamar Hunt was the founder of the American Football League and owner of the Dallas Texans. Because the team faced direct competition with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, Hunt decided to move the team to Kansas City in 1963.

In addition, Hunt scrapped the Texans name with another unique one. Hunt chose “Chiefs” in honor of Mayor Bartle, whose nickname was Chief. This came in his professional role as Scout Executive of the St. Joseph and Kansas City Boy Scout Councils.

Los Angeles Chargers

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In 1960, Barron Hilton sponsored a name-the-team contest with a promised trip to Mexico City for the winner. Gerald Courtney submitted “Chargers” and Hilton reportedly liked the name so much that he didn’t open another letter of entry.

According to one story, the son of the Hilton Hotels founder agreed after his general manager, Frank Leahy, picked the Chargers name when he purchased an AFL franchise for Los Angeles. “I liked it because they were yelling ‘charge’ and sounding the bugle at Dodger Stadium and at USC games.”

Los Angeles Rams

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One of the oldest NFL franchises began their football life in Cleveland in 1937. The team was named the Rams simply because their player-coach-general manager, Damon Wetzel, like the Fordham Rams. In 1946, the team moved to Los Angeles, becoming the league’s first Pacific Coast team.

Then, in 1995, Los Angeles relocated to St. Louis. In 2016, the team would find its way back to Los Angeles. The Rams were the first NFL team to use helmet logos.

How did Tom Brady’s team get their name? Billy Sullivan Jr. has the answer to that shortly.

Miami Dolphins

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A name-the-team contest quickly turned into 20,000 entries with more than 600 submissions for Dolphins. But, Majorie Swanson was named the winner after correctly predicting a tie in the 1965 college football game between Miami and Notre Dame in part of a follow-up contest.

Swanson would be rewarded with lifetime season passes to Dolphins games. Owner Joe Robbie was quoted on the fondness of the nickname, “The dolphin is one of the fastest and smartest creatures in the sea.”

Minnesota Vikings

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The Twin City was granted an NFL franchise in 1960. In one of Bert Roses’ first moves, he had to come up with a team name. Rose recommended the nickname "Vikings" to the Board of Directors.

The name was selected due it having a representation of both an aggressive person with the will to win, as well as the Nordic tradition in the northern Midwest. The expansion franchise became the first pro sports team to feature its home state, rather than a city in the team name.

Long before New York had two football teams, one of them was originally named the Titans.

New England Patriots

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Billy Sullivan Jr. was a Boston businessman with a strong sports promotional background in November 1959. In keeping with the heritage of New England, the nickname “Patriots” was selected by a panel of sports writers in a contest to name the team.

“Pat Patriot,” the cartoon of a Minuteman preparing to snap a football drawn by the Boston Globe’s Phil Bissell, was chosen as the team’s logo soon after. The only thing that changed from that point is going from Boston to New England.

New Orleans Saints

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New Orleans was awarded their franchise on the same day as All Saints Day. The city itself has a large Catholic population and numerous centuries-old Catholic churches. It was only fitting to nickname the team the "Saints" for the day they were officially conceived on November 1.

The nickname was actually chosen by team owner John Mecom, which meant two things. First, it was a nod to the city’s jazz heritage, and from the popular song "When The Saints Go Marching In."

New York Giants

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The late Tim Mara purchased the franchise for $500 in 1925. The Pro Football Hall of Famer would soon have a name for the team he purchased. Mara was the original owner of the New York Giants baseball club and would name his football team as a tribute to the franchise.

It was an oddity at the time for a team to be located in such a large city in the NFL as many clubs were located in towns such as Toledo, OH, Pottsville, PA, and Canton, OH.

New York Jets

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Originally nicknamed the Titans, the team went through a franchise ownership change. Harry Wismer sold it to a five-man group led by Sonny Werblin, and the team was renamed the Jets in 1963.

This came after Werblin led an investment group that purchased the bankrupt franchise for $1 million. Werblin changed the colors to green and white to honor his birthday on St. Patricks’ Day. In 1964, the new-look Jets moved from Polo Grounds to the newly-constructed Shea Stadium.

One owner named his club “Pirates” after the city’s baseball team.

Oakland Raiders

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Oakland didn’t become an AFL franchise until Minnesota defected for the NFL. Oakland businessman, Chet Soda, was the head of a group which purchased the final franchise. At first, the team was named the “Señors” in a name-the-team contest.

Responding to the backlash, Soda and the team’s other investors decided to change the nickname to “Raiders,” which was the runner-up in the contest. The Raiders have bounced back and forth between Oakland and Los Angeles. Their new home will be in Las Vegas in 2020.

Philadelphia Eagles

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The Eagles have been in existence in Philadelphia since 1933. The late Bert Bell and Lud Wray purchased the Frankford Yellow Jackets for $2,500. The Eagles used the Yellow Jackets old uniforms, which were yellow, blue and white, from 1933 to 1936.

In 1936, new uniforms were purchased with green jerseys and socks. Bell renamed the club the “Eagles” after the eagle logo on the National Recovery Administration’s emblem. The emblem was in honor of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deals National Recovery Act.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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Pittsburgh native Arthur J. Rooney named his club “Pirates” after the city’s baseball team. Before the 1940 season, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette promoted a “name-the-team” contest. In the end, Rooney went with “Steelers.”

During World War II, the Steelers experienced player shortages. They twice merged with other NFL franchises to field a team. In 1943, they merged with the Eagles forming the “Phil-Pitt Eagles” which also went by the name “Steagles.” After that, the Steelers were their own team once again.

One team got their nickname from pirate invasions of a long time ago.

San Francisco 49ers

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This club is one of the few teams that have not changed their city name or their nickname. After San Francisco was awarded a franchise, the wives of the two original owners, Tony Morabito and his younger brother Victor, suggested the nickname "49ers."

It was supposed to honor the men who were part of the 1849 gold rush in the Sierra Nevada mountains east of San Francisco. In 1964, the team switched their colors from silver, red, and white to gold, red, and white.

Seattle Seahawks

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Seattle first took to the field as the Pacific Northwest metropolis in 1976. A civic suggestion campaign netted 20,365 entries and 1,741 different names, and “Seahawks” was announced the winner a season prior to the team’s debut.

A Seattle minor league hockey team and Miami’s franchise in the All-America Football Conference both used the nickname in the 1950s. Interestingly enough, the helmet design is simply a stylized head of an osprey, a fish-eating hawk of the Northwest.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Tampa Bay is not an actual city, but a label used for the region it represents, as well as the bay’s actual title. The Buccaneers got their nickname from pirate invasions of a long time ago.

Florida’s western coast, including Tampa, was invaded by a Spanish captain named Jose’ Gaspar, commonly called Gasparilla, during the late and early 19th century. Today, the “Gasparilla Pirate Festival” held in January is celebrated every year and draws almost 500,000 attendees.

Tennessee Titans

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The Titans were an original member of the American Football League as the Houston Oilers. The team would remain in Houston until 1997, when they announced that the club would relocate to Nashville. By 1998, owner Bud Adams wanted to part with the Oilers nickname.

In Nashville, there’s plenty of full-scale replicas of the Parthenon as well as other Greek influences. The city was known as the “Athens of the South” as Adams went with “Titans” from a list of heroic qualities.

Washington Redskins

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George Preston Marshall was awarded the inactive Boston franchise in July 1932. Originally, the team name was “Braves” since it used Braves Field, the home of the National League baseball team.

When the team moved to Fenway Park in 1933, the name was changed to “Redskins.” Marshall, who owned numerous laundry chains in Washington, D.C., moved the club after the problems he faced in Boston. The team moved to his hometown and still uses its controversial name today.