How All 32 NFL Teams Got Their Names

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Buffalo Bills vs New York Jets, 1990.
Buffalo Bills vs New York Jets, 1990. / Rick Stewart/GettyImages

What do newspaper headline type and the New Deal have to do with the Las Vegas Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles? Here are the stories behind the names of the NFL’s 32 teams—and what they were almost called.

1. Arizona Cardinals

The Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals / Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The franchise began playing 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; he dubbed the color of his squad’s new outfits “cardinal red,” and a name 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.

2. Atlanta Falcons

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

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 name 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.

3. Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens.
The Baltimore Ravens. / Will Newton/GettyImages

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 name back from the franchise that left Baltimore for Indianapolis in 1984. The Marauders name 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.

4. Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills.
The Buffalo Bills. / Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Bills name 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. Bills 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 names from fans for his new franchise and ultimately chose Bills in homage to the city’s defunct AAFC team.

5. Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers.
The Carolina Panthers. / Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Panthers team president Mark Richardson, the son of team owner Jerry Richardson, chose Panthers 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 named the Panthers that featured black in its color scheme would appeal to street gangs and reflect poorly on the league.

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6. Chicago Bears

Wilber Marshall, Richard Dent, Steve McMichael, Dan Hampton, William Perry
The Chicago Bears. / Jonathan Daniel/GettyImages

In 1921, the Decatur Staleys, a charter member of the American Professional Football Association, moved to Chicago and kept their name, 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 its name. Chicago played its home games at Wrigley Field, home of baseball’s Cubs, and Halas opted to stick with the ursine theme.

7. Cincinnati Bengals

The Cincinnati Bengals.
The Cincinnati Bengals. / Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Team owner, general manager, and head coach Paul Brown named Cincinnati’s AFL expansion franchise the Bengals in 1968 in honor of a football team that played in the city from 1937–1942. According to Brown, the name “would provide a link with past professional football in Cincinnati.” Brown chose Bengals over the fans’ most popular suggestion, Buckeyes.

8. Cleveland Browns

The Cleveland Browns.
The Cleveland Browns. / Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Cleveland’s professional football franchise was named after its first coach and general manager, Paul Brown (though as the Baltimore Sun reported in 1995, the team’s media relations office once claimed it was named 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 name 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.

9. Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys.
The Dallas Cowboys. / Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Cowboys, who began play in the NFL in 1960, were originally going to be named 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.

10. Denver Broncos

Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos. / Dustin Bradford/GettyImages

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.

11. Detroit Lions

Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions. / Leon Halip/Getty Images

Radio executive George A. Richards purchased and moved the Portsmouth Spartans to Detroit in 1934 and renamed the team the Lions. The moniker 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.”

12. Green Bay Packers

Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers. / Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

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 name stuck.

13. Houston Texans

Houston Texans
The Houston Texans. / Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Houston’s 2002 expansion franchise became the sixth professional football team named 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 moniker, but ultimately renamed the team the Desperados. Houston owner Bob McNair chose Texans over Apollos and Stallions.

14. Indianapolis Colts

 Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts. / Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

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.

15. Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars. / Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The Jaguars’ name was selected through a fan contest in 1991, two years before the city was officially awarded an expansion team and four 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.

16. Kansas City Chiefs

Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs. / Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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. It was a nod to 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.

17. Los Angeles Chargers

Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers. / Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

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 it so much that he didn’t open another letter.

There are varying accounts as to why Hilton chose the name Chargers for his franchise, which spent one year in Los Angeles before relocating to San Diego. (The franchise moved back to the Los Angeles area before the 2017 season.) 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.

18. Los Angeles Rams

Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams. / Kevin C. Cox/GettyImages

The Rams, who originated in Cleveland in 1936 and spent 1946 through 1994 in the Los Angeles area before moving to St. Louis, came back to Los Angeles in 2016. The team traces their nickname to the college ranks. Principal owner Homer Marshman and general manager Damon “Buzz” Wetzel chose Rams because Wetzel’s favorite football team had always been the Fordham Rams. Fordham—Vince Lombardi’s alma mater—was a powerhouse at the time.

19. Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins. / Mark Brown/Getty Images

A naming contest for the Miami franchise that entered the AFL as an expansion team in 1966 drew nearly 20,000 entries. 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 moniker because, as he put it, “The dolphin is one of the fastest and smartest creatures in the sea.”

20. Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings. / Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

According to the Vikings’ website, Bert Rose, Minnesota’s general manager when the team joined the NFL in 1961, recommended the name 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.

21. New England Patriots

New England Patriots
The New England Patriots. / Jim Rogash/GettyImages

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.

22. New Orleans Saints

New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints. / Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

New Orleans was awarded an NFL franchise on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1966. Saints was a popular choice in a naming contest sponsored by the New Orleans States-Item, which announced the news of the new franchise with the headline, “N.O. goes pro!” The name, 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.”

23. New York Giants

New York Giants
The New York Giants. / Al Bello/Getty Images

New York owner Tim Mara borrowed the Giants’ moniker 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.

24. New York Jets

New York Jets
The New York Jets. / Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Originally called 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, according to the article, “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.”

25. Las Vegas Raiders

Las Vegas Raiders
The Las Vegas Raiders. / Katelyn Mulcahy/GettyImages

Chet Soda, Oakland’s first general manager, sponsored a name-the-team contest in 1960. An Oakland police officer named Helen A. Davis submitted the winning entry, Señors, and was rewarded with a trip to the Bahamas. The name, 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 name. “That’s no good,” Stirling said. “We don’t have the accent mark for the ñ 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. The Raiders have been back and forth between Oakland and Los Angeles; the franchise relocated to Las Vegas in 2020.

26. Philadephia Eagles

The Philadelphia Eagles.
The Philadelphia Eagles. / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

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.

27. Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers. / Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Pittsburgh’s football team shared the same name 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 seven 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; he renewed them every year until his death in 2003.

28. San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers. / Joe Robbins/Getty Images

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.

29. Seattle Seahawks

Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks. / Harry How/Getty Images

There were 1700 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 name 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.

30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers. / Mike Ehrmann/GettyImages

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 name, 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.

31. Tennessee Titans

Tennessee Titans
The Tennessee Titans. / Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

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 names such as Tornadoes, Copperheads, South Stars, and Wranglers. “We wanted a new nickname to reflect strength, leadership and other heroic qualities,” Adams told reporters.

32. Washington Commanders

The Washington Commanders.
The Washington Commanders. / Scott Taetsch/GettyImages

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 name 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, D.C., in 1937. After a brief stint as the Washington Football Team, they became the Washington Commanders in 2022.

A version of this story originally ran in 2010; it has been updated for 2023.