The line of scrimmage with quarterback Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during an NFL game at FedEx Field in 2021.

The story behind every NFL team name

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September 1, 2022
Steve Jacobson // Shutterstock

The story behind every NFL team name

There are no National Football League teams in the merry old land 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 animal names, and other monikers steeped in a rich history. Others, like the Washington Redskins (rebranded in February 2022 as the Washington Commanders) and Kansas City Chiefs, have drawn controversy and protests for years.

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 to Arizona in 1988. That's where the Cardinals remain today. As the NFL got older, relocation became a common occurrence—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).

Stacker delved into the story behind every NFL football team name. Overall team records, also included, are reflective of NFL regular-season games. There are some football teams with well-known nicknames—the Jets, for instance, are often referred to as Gang Green—but we also divulge how some teams' official names are used sparingly. The Jets' neighbors, the Giants, are often called the New York Football Giants, to distinguish them from a baseball franchise that has long since moved to San Francisco. 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, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are dripping in local legend related to Florida's pirate past.

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

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Arizona Cardinals

- Year founded: 1920
- Overall record: 577-777-41
- 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, named the new shade "Cardinal red." The Cardinals have never won a Super Bowl, coming closest with the combo of championship- veteran quarterback Kurt Warner and dynamic receiver Larry Fitzpatrick during the 2008 season. That NFC title run ended with a Super Bowl XLIII loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Atlanta Falcons

- Year founded: 1966
- Overall record: 376-483-6

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 the name "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 quarterback Tom Brady's New England Patriots 28-3, only to give up 31 unanswered points, and lose the game.

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Baltimore Ravens

- Year founded: 1996
- Overall record: 233-183-1

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 a famous Edgar Allan Poe poem, was a consistent choice. Poe lived and died in Baltimore, where the Ravens have celebrated two Super Bowl wins.

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Maddie Meyer // Getty Images

Buffalo Bills

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 449-492-8

A Buffalo football club in the All-America Football Conference was named the Bisons, but in 1947, a renaming contest was held. The name 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 famously reached four consecutive Super Bowls in the early '90s but lost them all to NFC East teams–first to the New York Giants, then to Washington, followed by back-to-back defeats to the Dallas Cowboys.

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Carolina Panthers

- Year founded: 1995
- Overall record: 205-227-1

The Richardson family, who originally owned the Panthers, came up with the team's 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 world championship.

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Chicago Bears

- Year founded: 1920
- Overall record: 783-610-42
- Previous team names: Decatur Staleys, Chicago Staleys

The Bears have been with the NFL since its start–even though they were originally called the much less fearsome nickname of the Staleys. According to the franchise, the team's name switched to the 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 and most recently, one Super Bowl title with one of the most dominant defenses of all time, in 1985. Chicago has also sent the most players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Tom Szczerbowski // Getty Images

Cincinnati Bengals

- Year founded: 1968
- Overall record: 373-459-5

At first, the new AFL team in Cincinnati considered calling themselves the "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 '80s but fell both times to the Joe Montana-led San Francisco 49ers. Led by young franchise quarterback Joe Burrow, the franchise won the AFC title for 2021 but fell to the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI.

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Andrew Weber // Getty Images

Cleveland Browns

- Year founded: 1950
- Overall record: 494-514-11

Before the birth of the Browns, a contest was held to name the new team. A favored suggestion was the 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 league championship.

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Dallas Cowboys

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 538-403-6

Noticing their well-traveled fan base in multiple opponents stadiums in the '70s, NFL Films dubbed them "America's Team". Today the Dallas Cowboys–love them or hate them–are the most valuable franchise in sports, estimated by Forbes to be worth a whopping $8 billion. The name came to be after the Cowboys were originally going to be called the Rangers. But the existence of a major league baseball team in Arlington, Texas with the same name led to a change, to avoid confusion. Since then, Dallas has been one of the NFL's most successful franchises, winning five Super Bowls in the '70s and '90s.

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Denver Broncos

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 495-444-10

After a new AFL franchise was awarded to Denver, the city held a contest to name the new club. The name Broncos was selected as the winner, which was also the name of a Colorado 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 famous airport–and have won three Super Bowls.

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Detroit Lions

- Year founded: 1930
- Overall record: 570-694-34
- 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.

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Stacy Revere // Getty Images

Green Bay Packers

- Year founded: 1921
- Overall record: 782-581-38

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, as well as one in the '90s and another in 2010. They are among the most successful and popular teams in the league. Locals also often refer to themselves as "cheeseheads" for wearing foam cheese hats to games at Lambeau Field.

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Tim Warner // Getty Images

Houston Texans

- Year founded: 2002
- Overall record: 139-182-0

Houston's expansion football franchise conducted months of research into devising a team name. Five candidates were considered—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, but has yet to reach a Super Bowl.

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Indianapolis Colts

- Year founded: 1953
- Overall record: 543-481-7
- 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–under head coach Tony Dungy in 2006.

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Jacksonville Jaguars

- Year founded: 1995
- Overall record: 180-253-0

In 1993, Jacksonville resident Ray Potts 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 played several exhibition and regular season games in London, but have yet to reach a Super Bowl.

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Kansas City Chiefs

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 507-430-12
- 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, the Texans, was not going to fly in Missouri. Former 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 Super Bowl IV in January 1970 to complete their 1969 season. In 2020, led by young quarterback Pat Mahomes, they would win their second world championship, beating the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV.

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Las Vegas Raiders

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 491-447-11
- Previous team names: Los Angeles Raiders, Oakland Raiders

In 2020, the Raiders officially made Las Vegas their home after 60 years of bouncing between Oakland and Los Angeles. Originally, the team was going to be called the Oakland 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 one of the iconic looks in professional sports. The franchise is still known for the late head coach John Madden, who lent his voice and likeness to the most popular NFL video game series of all time.

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Los Angeles Chargers

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 468-470-11
- 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 a Super Bowl to cap the 1995 season and lost, to the San Francisco 49ers.

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Los Angeles Rams

- Year founded: 1937
- Overall record: 599-580-21
- Previous team names: Cleveland Rams, Los Angeles Rams, St. Louis Rams

The Rams' name, a moniker that was first coined in tribute to the strong Fordham Rams college football teams from the 1930s, has stayed the same through several moves. The Rams were also the first team to wear a logo on their helmet, the now famous Ram horns. Those helmets were victoriously worn by the "Greatest Show on Turf" team in Super Bowl XXXIV but lost the Super Bowl in 2019 to the New England Patriots.

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Maddie Meyer // Getty Images

Miami Dolphins

- Year founded: 1966
- Overall record: 476-385-4

According to the book "The Power of a Name: The Origin of Professional Sports Team Nicknames and Their Most Valuable Players," the name Dolphins 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.

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Minnesota Vikings

- Year founded: 1961
- Overall record: 503-421-11

The name Vikings was an obvious choice for the NFL's new team in Minnesota, given a large number of residents with Scandinavian heritage in the state. Among the other potential monikers were the 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.

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Maddie Meyer // Getty Images

New England Patriots

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 529-411-9
- Previous team names: Boston Patriots

Many suggestions for the Boston area's AFL team were historically themed. Minutemen and Colonials were options, but the name Patriots was most popular in a fan-entry contest. More than just a spirited band of rebels, the Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick has developed into one of the NFL's preeminent franchises. After a drubbing at the hands of the '85 Bears, the Pats have won all six of their Super Bowls since 2001.

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New Orleans Saints

- Year founded: 1967
- Overall record: 396-450-5

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 toward the bottom of the NFL—referred to by some fans as the "Aint's"—but with Drew Brees as the quarterback, they won their first Super Bowl in 2010.

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New York Giants

- Year founded: 1925
- Overall record: 706-631-33

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 from the baseball team. Occasionally, announcers will use the full name to add a little pomp. The Giants have also called themselves Super Bowl champions on four occasions, including an upset of the undefeated New England Patriots, after the underdogs lost to the AFC champs to close the 2007 regular season.

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Joe Robbins // Getty Images

New York Jets

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 414-527-8
- Previous team names: New York Titans

The Jets entered the AFL as the Titans—albeit no relation to today's Tennessee Titans—but changed their name in 1963. New owner Sonny Werblin liked the color green and the modern name Jets. The Jets formerly played in New York, but their home stadium is now in New Jersey. Like the crosstown 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.

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Philadelphia Eagles

- Year founded: 1933
- Overall record: 599-627-27

Inspired by former President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, which used the American 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 the franchise won its first Super Bowl in 2018.

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Pittsburgh Steelers

- Year founded: 1933
- Overall record: 652-563-22
- Previous team names: Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh's NFL team first shared the same Pirates name as the city's baseball team but changed to the 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 cross-state Pennsylvania alliance was short-lived, and the Steelers won six Super Bowls on their own.

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San Francisco 49ers

- Year founded: 1950
- Overall record: 561-492-14

The 49ers were named after the pioneers who rushed to California in 1849 in search of gold. In terms of Super Bowl wins, the 49ers have struck gold five times, establishing themselves as the top franchise of the '80s and also winning it all in 1994. Currently, the team actually plays in Santa Clara, south of San Francisco.

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Seattle Seahawks

- Year founded: 1976
- Overall record: 374-350-1

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

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

- Year founded: 1976
- Overall record: 291-433-1

Connected to the legend of José 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 orange cream look toward the end of the 20th century and then won a Super Bowl in 2003.

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Tennessee Titans

- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 463-480-6
- 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. The 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, famously falling short by a yard to the St. Louis Rams.

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Washington Commanders

- Year founded: 1932
- Overall record: 617-622-28
- Previous team names: Boston Braves, Boston Redskins, Washington Redskins, Washington Football Team

After 87 years as the Redskins, the franchise parted ways with the name and its racist connotations in 2019 and officially rebranded as the Washington Commanders in February 2022.

In 2021, the team updated its stadium protocol and policies to prohibit the fans from wearing Native American-inspired ceremonial headdresses or face paint. Even though it held its previous name for the better part of a century, this isn't the team's first major rebranding. Originally called the Boston Braves, owner George P. Marshall changed the moniker in 1933 to the Boston Redskins and four years later, moved the team to Washington D.C.

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