The Unique and Colorful Origins of 12 NFL Team Names
The New Deal, Scandinavian inhabitants, and a tribute to jazz are the inspirations behind three National Football League (NFL) team names. Can you guess who they are? Learn more about the unique and colorful origins of these NFL team names and others.
- Buffalo Bills – In 1946, Buffalo’s team in the All-American Football Conference (AAFC) was the Bisons. A contest was held in 1947 to rename the team which was then owned by James Breuil of the Frontier Oil Company. The winning entry, Bills, referenced the famous western frontiersman, Buffalo Bill Cody, and supported the company’s name and theme—opening a new frontier in sports in western New York.
- Chicago Bears – In 1920, the team became a charter of the American Professional Football Association (APFA). At the time it was located in Decatur, Illinois, owned by the Staley Starch Company, and called the Decatur Staleys. The team moved in 1921 and became the Chicago Staleys. When George Halas purchased the team in 1922, he changed the name. Since the city’s baseball team was the Cubs and football players are typically larger, he logically rechristened the team, the Bears.
- Arizona Cardinals – The franchise began playing in Chicago in 1898. In 1960, it moved to St. Louis, and in 1988, it moved once again to Arizona. Surprisingly, the team wasn’t named for the beautiful bird pictured in many winter scenes. The team originally played in used maroon jerseys that were purchased from the University of Chicago. When comments were made that they were old and worn, team owner Chris O’Brien claimed they weren’t faded, they were “Cardinal” red.
- Indianapolis Colts – A member of the All-American Football Conference from 1947-1950, the Baltimore Colts were named to reflect the region’s great and proud history of horse breeding and racing. After the 1950 season, the original team disbanded, but the name was retained as the franchise began playing in 1953. In 1984, the team relocated to Indianapolis.
- Dallas Cowboys – When Dallas began playing in the NFL in 1960, the team was known as the Steers. Texas E. Schramm, the team’s general manager, was afraid the team would be teased for using a castrated bovine as its mascot, so he chose the Rangers instead. However, at the same time there was a minor league baseball team with that name that was supposed to fold that year, but it didn’t. To avoid confusion the new managers of the NFL football team changed the name to the Cowboys.
- Philadelphia Eagles – In 1933, the country was struggling to recover from the Great Depression and Bert Bell established this NFL franchise. During this time, Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the New Deal through the National Recovery Administration that used an Eagle as its symbol. Bell thought this icon was also appropriate for the new team, so he used Eagles as the name hoping that it would bring new-borne success to his franchise.
- Cleveland Browns – In 1945, a fan contest was held to name the team and the most popular submission was Browns. However, there is debate over whether the name is for the team’s first coach and general manager, Paul Brown, or for the boxer, Joe Louis, who was nicknamed the “Brown Bomber.” At first Paul Brown vetoed the use of his name, but he ultimately agreed.
- Minnesota Vikings – Bert Rose, the Minnesota’s general manager suggested using Vikings for the team name to honor the Scandinavian heritage of the inhabitants in the surrounding area. Also, the name represents aggressive, conquering warriors with a strong will to win, a good association for any aspiring football team.
- New York Giants – In the past, baseball was the most popular sport and it was common practice for a football team to use the name of the area’s National League baseball team. To distinguish itself, the team was originally referred to as the New York Football Giants which is still its legal corporate name. In 1957, the baseball team moved to San Francisco, but the football team has remained and still uses the name. Along the way, they have also acquired a few nicknames: Big Blue, G-Men, and the Big Blue Wrecking Crew.
- San Francisco 49ers – In 1946, the San Francisco 49ers began playing in the All-American Football Conference. Their name was selected because it represented the adventurous pioneers in the 1849 Gold Rush that occurred in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
- Green Bay Packers – The oldest team name still in use in the NFL today, the Green Bay Packers are named for the company that sponsored the team, the Indian Packing Company. At the time, the company was the team founder Earl “Curly” Lambeau’s employer. The company became the Acme Packing Company and then folded, but the name has remained.
- New Orleans Saints – On All Saints Day in 1966, New Orleans was awarded an NFL franchise. The name was also the popular choice of a fan contest. Team owner, John Mecom, chose the name which is also a tribute to the city’s jazz heritage and the famous marching song, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
The next time you’re wearing your jersey and wildly cheering for your favorite football franchise remember the origin of their NFL team name and the names of others in the league. As the season winds down, enjoy following this favorite American pastime and good luck to your team!