What's in a Nickname? The Origins of All 32 NFL Team Names
What do newspaper headline type and the New Deal have to do with the Oakland Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles? Here are the stories behind the nicknames of the NFL’s 32 teams—and what they were almost called.
The franchise began play in Chicago in 1898 before moving to St. Louis in 1960 and Arizona in 1988. Team owner Chris O’Brien purchased used and faded maroon jerseys from the University of Chicago in 1901 and dubbed the color of his squad’s new outfits “cardinal red.” A nickname was born. The team adopted the cardinal bird as part of its logo as early as 1947 and first featured a cardinal head on its helmets in 1960.
Shortly after insurance executive Rankin Smith brought professional football to Atlanta, a local radio station sponsored a contest to name the team. Thirteen hundred people combined to suggest more than 500 names, including Peaches, Vibrants, Lancers, Confederates, Firebirds, and Thrashers. While several fans submitted the nickname Falcons, schoolteacher Julia Elliott of nearby Griffin was declared the winner of the contest for the reason she provided. “The falcon is proud and dignified, with great courage and fight,” Elliott wrote. “It never drops its prey. It is deadly and has great sporting tradition.” Elliott won four season tickets for three years and a football autographed by the entire 1966 inaugural team.
Ravens, a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem, beat out Americans and Marauders in a contest conducted by the Baltimore Sun. Poe died and is buried in Baltimore.
Of the more than 33,000 voters in the Sun’s phone-in poll, more than 21,000 picked Ravens. “It gives us a strong nickname that is not common to teams at any level, and it gives us one that means something historically to this community,” said team owner Art Modell, who had attempted to buy the Colts nickname back from the franchise that left Baltimore for Indianapolis in 1984. The Marauders nickname referenced a B-26 built during World War II by the Glenn L. Martin Company, a predecessor to Lockheed Martin that was based in Baltimore. Other names considered included the Railers, Bulldogs, Mustangs, and Steamers.
The Bills nickname was suggested as part of a fan contest in 1947 to rename Buffalo’s All-America Football Conference team, which was originally known as the Bisons. The Bills nickname referenced frontiersman Buffalo Bill Cody and was selected over Bullets, Nickels, and Blue Devils. It helped that the team was owned by the president of Frontier Oil, James Breuil. Buffalo was without a team from 1950 to 1959, when owner Ralph Wilson acquired a franchise in the AFL. Wilson solicited potential nicknames from fans for his new franchise and ultimately chose Bills in homage to the city’s defunct AAFC team.
Panthers team president Mark Richardson, the son of team owner Jerry Richardson, chose the Panthers nickname because "it's a name our family thought signifies what we thought a team should be—powerful, sleek and strong." Richardson also chose the 1995 expansion team’s color scheme of black, blue, and silver, a choice that initially came under scrutiny from NFL Properties representatives. According to one newspaper report, the concern was raised at the 1993 NFL meetings that a team nicknamed the Panthers that featured black in its color scheme would appeal to street gangs and reflect poorly on the league.
In 1921, the Decatur Staleys, a charter member of the American Professional Football Association, moved to Chicago and kept their nickname, a nod to the team’s sponsor, the Staley Starch Company. When star player George Halas purchased the team the following year, he decided to change the nickname. Chicago played its home games at Wrigley Field, home of baseball’s Cubs, and Halas opted to stick with the ursine theme.
Team owner, general manager, and head coach Paul Brown nicknamed Cincinnati’s AFL expansion franchise the Bengals in 1968 in honor of the football team nicknamed the Bengals that played in the city from 1937-1942. According to Brown, the nickname “would provide a link with past professional football in Cincinnati.” Brown chose Bengals over the fans’ most popular suggestion, Buckeyes.
There’s some debate about whether Cleveland’s professional football franchise was named after its first coach and general manager, Paul Brown, or after boxer Joe Louis, who was nicknamed the “Brown Bomber.” Team owner Mickey McBride conducted a fan contest in 1945 and the most popular submission was Browns. According to one version of the story, Paul Brown vetoed the nickname and chose Panthers instead, but a local businessman informed the team that he owned the rights to the name Cleveland Panthers. Brown ultimately agreed to the use of his name and Browns stuck.
The Cowboys, who began play in the NFL in 1960, were originally going to be nicknamed the Steers. The team’s general manager, Texas E. Schramm, decided that having a castrated bovine as a mascot might subject the team to ridicule, so he decided to go with Rangers instead. But fearing that people would confuse the football team with the local minor league baseball team nicknamed the Rangers, Schramm finally changed the nickname to Cowboys shortly before the season began.
Denver was a charter member of the AFL in 1960 and Broncos, which was submitted along with a 25-word essay by Ward M. Vining, was the winning entry among 162 fans who responded in a name-the-team contest. A Denver team by the same name played in the Midwest Baseball League in 1921.
Radio executive George A. Richards purchased and moved the Portsmouth Spartans to Detroit in 1934 and renamed the team the Lions. The nickname was likely derived from Detroit’s established baseball team, the Tigers, who won 101 games and the AL pennant that year. As the team explained it, “The lion is the monarch of the jungle, and we hope to be the monarch of the league.”
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Team founder Earl “Curly” Lambeau’s employer, the Indian Packing Company, sponsored Green Bay’s football team and provided equipment and access to the field. The Indian Packing Company became the Acme Packing Company and later folded, but the nickname stuck.
Houston’s 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 and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones revived the team in 2000. He was planning to keep the old nickname, but ultimately renamed the team the Desperados. Houston owner Bob McNair chose Texans over Apollos and Stallions.
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. The name remained when a new franchise began play in 1953 and after the team relocated to Indianapolis in 1984.
The Jaguars nickname was selected through a fan contest in 1991, 2 years before the city was officially awarded an expansion team and 4 years before the team would begin play. Other names considered included the Sharks and Stingrays. While Jaguars aren’t native to Jacksonville, the oldest living jaguar in North America was housed in the Jacksonville Zoo.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
The Chiefs began play in the AFL in 1960 as the Dallas Texans. When the team moved to Kansas City in 1963, owner Lamar Hunt changed the team’s name to the Chiefs after also considering Mules, Royals, and Stars. Hunt said the name was locally important because Native Americans had once lived in the area. Hunt may have also been swayed by Kansas City mayor H. Roe Bartle, whose nickname was The Chief. Bartle helped lure the team to Kansas City by promising Hunt that the city would meet certain attendance thresholds.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
The Rams, who originated in Cleveland in 1936 and spent 1946 through 1994 in the Los Angeles area before moving to St. Louis, are back in LA this season. The team traces their nickname to the college ranks. Principal owner Homer Marshman and general manager Damon “Buzz” Wetzel chose the nickname because Wetzel’s favorite football team had always been the Fordham Rams. Fordham—Vince Lombardi’s alma mater—was a powerhouse at the time.
A name-the-team contest drew nearly 20,000 entries and resulted in the nickname for the Miami franchise that entered the AFL as an expansion team in 1966. More than 600 fans suggested Dolphins, but Marjorie Swanson was declared the winner after correctly predicting a tie in the 1965 college football game between Miami and Notre Dame as part of a follow-up contest. Swanson, who won a lifetime season pass to Dolphins games, told reporters she consulted a Magic 8-Ball before predicting the score of the game. Miami owner Joe Robbie was fond of the winning nickname because, as he put it, “The dolphin is one of the fastest and smartest creatures in the sea.”
According to the Vikings’ website, Bert Rose, Minnesota’s general manager when it joined the NFL in 1961, recommended the nickname to the team’s Board of Directors because “it represented both an aggressive person with the will to win and the Nordic tradition in the northern Midwest.” The expansion franchise also became the first pro sports team to feature its home state, rather than a city, in the team name.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Seventy-four fans suggested Patriots in the name-the-team contest that was conducted by the management group of Boston’s original AFL franchise in 1960. “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. While the first part of the team’s name changed from Boston to New England in 1971, Patriots remained.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
New Orleans was awarded an NFL franchise on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1966. The nickname was a popular choice in a name-the-team contest sponsored by the New Orleans States-Item, which announced the news of the new franchise with the headline, “N.O. goes pro!” The nickname, chosen by team owner John Mecom, was a nod to the city’s jazz heritage and taken from the popular song, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
NEW YORK GIANTS
New York owner Tim Mara borrowed the Giants nickname from John McGraw’s National League baseball team, a common practice by football teams during an era when baseball was the nation’s preeminent team sport.
NEW YORK JETS
Originally nicknamed the Titans, the team was renamed the Jets in 1963 after Sonny Werblin led an investment group that purchased the bankrupt franchise for $1 million.
According to a contemporary New York Times story, the franchise considered calling itself the Dodgers, but nixed the idea after Major League Baseball didn’t like it. Gothams also got some consideration, but the team didn’t like the idea of having it shortened to the Goths, because “you know they weren’t such nice people.” The last finalist to fall was the New York Borros, a pun on the city’s boroughs; the team worried that opposing fans would make the Borros-burros connection and derisively call the squad the jackasses.
Eventually the team became the Jets since it was going to play in Shea Stadium, which is close to LaGuardia Airport. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the name was supposed to reflect the “modern approach of his team.”
Chet Soda, Oakland’s first general manager, sponsored a name-the-team contest in 1960. Helen A. Davis, an Oakland policewoman, submitted the winning entry, Señors, and was rewarded with a trip to the Bahamas. The nickname, an allusion to the old Spanish settlers of northern California, was ridiculed in the weeks that followed, and fans also claimed that the contest was fixed. Scotty Stirling, a sportswriter for the Oakland Tribune who would later become the team’s general manager, provided another reason to abandon the nickname. “That’s no good,” Stirling said. “We don’t have the accent mark for the n in our headline type.” Responding to the backlash, Soda and the team’s other investors decided to change the team’s nickname to Raiders, which was a finalist in the contest along with Lakers.
In 1933, Bert Bell and Lud Wray purchased the bankrupt Frankford Yellowjackets. The new owners renamed the team the Eagles in honor of the symbol of the National Recovery Act, which was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Pittsburgh’s football team shared the same nickname as the city’s baseball team, the Pirates, from 1933 to 1940. Before the 1940 season, owner Art Rooney held a rename-the-team contest. A change couldn’t hurt, as Pittsburgh had failed to post a winning season in its first 7 years. Joe Santoni, who worked in a mill for Pittsburgh Steel, was one of several fans who suggested Steelers. Santoni received a pair of season tickets, which he would renew every year until his death in 2003.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Team owner Barron Hilton sponsored a name-the-team contest and promised a trip to Mexico City to the winner in 1960. Gerald Courtney submitted “Chargers” and Hilton reportedly liked the name so much that he didn’t open another letter.
There are varying accounts as to why Hilton chose Chargers for his franchise, which spent one year in Los Angeles before relocating to San Diego. According to one story, Hilton liked the name, in part, for its affiliation with his new Carte Blanche credit card. The owner also told reporters that he was fond of the “Charge!” bugle cry played at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The 49ers, who began play in the All-America Football Conference in 1946, were named after the settlers who ventured to the San Francisco area during the gold rush of 1849.
There were 1,700 unique names among the more than 20,000 submitted in a name-the-team contest in 1975, including Skippers, Pioneers, Lumberjacks, and Seagulls. About 150 people suggested Seahawks. A Seattle minor league hockey team and Miami’s franchise in the All-America Football Conference both used the nickname in the 1950s. “Our new name suggests aggressiveness, reflects our soaring Northwest heritage, and belongs to no other major league team,” Seattle general manager John Thompson said. The Seahawks’ helmet design is a stylized head of an osprey, a fish-eating hawk of the Northwest.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
A panel of local sportswriters and representatives from the NFL expansion team, including owner Hugh F. Culverhouse, chose Buccaneers from an original list of more than 400 names in 1975. The nickname, which was a popular choice among fans in a name-the-team contest, was a nod to the pirates who raided Florida’s coasts during the 17th century.
After relocating from Houston to Tennessee in 1995, the team played two seasons as the Oilers before owner Bud Adams held a statewide contest to rename the team. Titans was chosen over nicknames such as Tornadoes, Copperheads, South Stars, and Wranglers. “We wanted a new nickname to reflect strength, leadership and other heroic qualities,'' Adams told reporters.
One year after he acquired an NFL franchise in Boston, George Preston Marshall changed the team’s nickname from Braves to Redskins. According to most accounts, the nickname was meant to honor head coach and Native American William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, though some question whether Dietz was a Native American. The Redskins kept their controversial nickname when they relocated to Washington, DC, in 1937.
A version of this post originally appeared in 2010.