As 'Redskins' drop moniker, here's the story behind every NFL team name
There are no National Football League teams in the magical world 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 Redskinsand Kansas City Chiefs, have courted controversy and protest for years; the former announced in July 2020 the Redskins name would be repealed with a new name to follow an internal review. For now, the team is using the temporary moniker "Washington Football Team."
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 in 1988 to Arizona, where the Cardinals remain today. As the NFL got older, relocation became a common theme—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).
There are some football teams with well-known nicknames—the Jets are often referred to as Gang Green—but we also divulge how some teams’ official names are sparingly used (the Jets’ neighbors, the Giants, are actually known as the New York Football Giants). 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; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are dripping in local legend related to Florida’s piratey 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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- Year founded: 1920
- Overall record: 560-762-40
- 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, called the new shade “Cardinal red.” The Cardinals have never won a Super Bowl, coming closest in Super Bowl XLIII.
- Year founded: 1966
- Overall record: 368-466-6
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 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 the Patriots 28-3, only to give up 31 unanswered points and lose the game.
- Year founded: 1996
- Overall record: 215-176-1
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 the famous Edgar Allan Poe poem, was a consistent choice. Poe lived and died in Baltimore, where the Ravens have celebrated two Super Bowl wins.
- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 429-493-8
A Buffalo football club in the All-America Football Conference was named Bisons, but in 1947 held a renaming contest. 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 have reached four Super Bowls but lost them all.
- Year founded: 1995
- Overall record: 199-201-1
The Richardson family, who originally owned the Panthers, came up with the team 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 championship.
- Year founded: 1920
- Overall record: 778-602-42
- Previous team names: Decatur Staleys, Chicago Staleys
The Bears have been with the NFL since its start (even though they were originally called the Staleys). According to the franchise, the team name switched to 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 (only one was a Super Bowl, though) and have put the most players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
- Year founded: 1968
- Overall record: 362-441-4
At first, the new AFL team in Cincinnati considered calling themselves “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 1980s but fell both times to the San Francisco 49ers.
- Year founded: 1950
- Overall record: 532-514-14
Before the birth of the Browns, a contest was held to name the new team. A favored suggestion was 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 championship.
- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 547-408-6
They like to call themselves “America’s Team,” but Cowboys is their official name. This came to be after the Cowboys were originally going tobe called the Rangers. But the existence of a baseball team with the same name led to change to avoid confusion. Since then, Dallas has been one of the NFL’s most successful franchises, winning five Super Bowls.
- Year founded: 1960
- Overall record: 499-433-10
After a new AFL franchise was awarded to Denver, the city held a contest to name the new club. Broncos was selected as the winner which was also the name of an area 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 airport) and have won three Super Bowls.