In 1920, the National Football League was born to forever change American popular culture. Igniting a new age of professional sports, the birth of the NFL brought with it modern gladiators, loyal fanbases, competitive rivalries, Sunday barbecues and fantasy team building. Throughout the course of its history, the NFL has drastically changed and evolved, witnessing the coming and going of countless franchises. Today, 32 enduring teams with diverse backgrounds comprise the league. Moving through the chronological timeline of franchises inaugurated into the NFL, here are the origins behind every team’s name.
Arizona Cardinals (1920)
In 1920, the Cardinals became the first official team to enter into the NFL. As the eldest professional football team, the Cardinals were born prior to the establishment of the league. The franchise laid roots in Chicago in 1898 before moving to Saint Louis in 1960 and then settling in Phoenix in 1988, leading to its current title, the Arizona Cardinals. Contrary to popular belief, the team’s name is not based on the beautiful red bird but rather it stemmed from the uniforms. In 1901, team owner Chis O’Brien purchased faded red jerseys from the University of Chicago, remarking that the color was “cardinal red.” The name stuck. The team wouldn’t adopt the cardinal bird as its logo until 1947. By 1960, it featured the bird on its helmets.
Green Bay Packers (1921)
In 1921, the Packers became the second team to enter into the NFL. Franchise owner Earl “Curly” Lambeau received funds for the team’s uniforms and equipment from his employer, the Indian Packing Company. In exchange, Lambeau agreed to name the Green Bay team after its sponsor. Today, the Green Bay Packers have the oldest surviving original team name in the NFL.
Chicago Bears (1922)
First established as a charter member of the American Professional Football Association (APFA) in 1920, the Bears originally started out in Decatur, Illinois where they were known as the Decatur Staleys. The name Staleys was taken after the team’s sponsor, the Staley Starch Company. In 1921 the team relocated to Chicago briefly becoming the Chicago Staleys. Shortly afterward, founder and manager George Halas purchased the team in 1922 changing the name to Bears as a nod to the Chicago Cubs. Halas also reasoned that because football players are typically bigger than baseball players, so too should be their mascot.
New York Giants (1925)
In 1925, five new teams entered into the NFL, including the New York Giants, Pottsville Maroons, Detroit Panthers, Canton Bulldogs and the Providence Steam Rollers. The Giants were the only surviving franchise with the Steam Rollers making it the second-longest upon folding in 1931. The Giants borrowed their name from the city’s Major League Baseball team – a common practice during a time in which baseball was the more popular sport. Before the baseball team moved to San Francisco in 1957, the New York Giants referred to themselves as the New York Football Giants in order to avoid confusion. Of the several teams that shared a Major League Baseball team’s name, the Giants are the only one to have retained theirs.
Detroit Lions (1930)
Originally founded in 1930 as the Portsmouth Spartans, Detroit radio executive George Richards purchased and relocated the team from Ohio to Detroit in 1934. In addition to moving locations, Richards also changed the team’s name to Lions to complement the city’s baseball team, the Detroit Tigers. Richards also explained that “The lion is the monarch of the jungle, and we hope to be the monarch of the league.”
Washington Redskins (1932)
In 1930, the Boston Braves arrived as the latest entry into the league. Founder George Preston Marshall named the franchise after the city’s baseball team. In July of 1932, the organization moved to Washington DC following a financially strenuous season with offensively low attendance. Marshall deserted the original name in favor of Redskins supposedly to honor Native American head coach William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz. Despite some uncertainty surrounding Dietz’s ethnicity, the team has preserved its controversial mascot.
Philadelphia Eagles (1933)
In the wake of the Great Depression, the Frankford Yellowjackets declared bankruptcy and disbanded during the 1931 postseason. By 1933, Bert Bell and Lud Wray purchased the Philadelphia team changing its name to Eagles, the symbol of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act.
Pittsburgh Steelers (1933)
Entering the league at the same time as the Eagles, the Steelers started out as the Pittsburgh Pirates sharing the same mascot as the city’s baseball team. The original name lasted from 1933 until 1940 when owner Art Rooney held a contest to change the team’s name. Among numerous fans who submitted name ideas, one steel mill worker by the name of Joe Santoni suggested the name Steelers to signify the city’s principal steel industry. The team adopted the name and provided Santoni with season tickets that he would renew every year until his death in 2003.
Los Angeles Rams (1937)
Originally founded in Cleveland in 1936 as part of the American Football League (AFL), the Rams later joined the NFL in 1937. In 1946, the team relocated to Los Angeles where it spent several seasons before moving to Saint Louis in 1995 and then settling back in Los Angeles in 2016. General manager Damon Wetzel chose the name Rams in honor of his favorite college football team, the Fordham Rams.
Cleveland Browns (1950)
Prior to joining the NFL in 1950, the Cleveland team decided upon the name Browns as part of a fan contest in 1945. Though Browns was the most popular submission, it’s unclear as to whether this was in recognition of the team’s first coach Paul Brown or to honor famous boxer Joe Louis, whose nickname was the “Brown Bomber.” At first Brown rejected the name, electing Panthers instead. This would quickly change when a local businessman claimed that he owned the rights to the name Cleveland Panthers, forcing Brown to agree to the use of his last name for the team’s mascot.
San Francisco 49ers (1950)
Also joining the league in 1950, the 49ers first chose their name in 1946 when the team began playing in the American Football Conference (AFC). The name was chosen to embody the adventurous spirit of the pioneers who journeyed into the Sierra Nevada mountains during the 1849 goldrush.
Indianapolis Colts (1953)
In 1953, the Colts started their franchise career as the Baltimore Colts. The name was chosen during a 1947 fan contest to reflect the region’s proud tradition of horse breeding. The team retained its name even after relocating to Indianapolis in 1984.
Dallas Cowboys (1960)
Incepted into the league in 1960, the Cowboys almost assumed the name, Dallas Steers. However, general manager Texas E. Schramm feared that a mascot of a castrated ox might attract criticism. Schramm instead decided to make the team’s new name, Rangers. This would also soon change when team owners Clint Murchison Jr. and Bedford Wynne wanted to distinguish their new organization from the local Minor League Baseball team with the same name. They would eventually come to settle on the name, Cowboys.
Minnesota Vikings (1961)
The Vikings’ name origins trace back to the Midwest’s proud Scandinavian heritage. Founded in 1961, the team’s first general manager Bert Rose suggested the name Vikings to honor the Nordic tradition and to exemplify “an aggressive person with the will to win.”
Atlanta Falcons (1966)
Prior to the team’s official inauguration in the league in 1966, a local radio station held a name contest in 1965. Among the 500 submitted names were Knights, Vibrants, Rebels, Lancers, Firebirds and Thrashers. The name Falcons was suggested by high school teacher Julia Elliot, who wrote that “The falcon is proud and dignified, with great courage and fight. It never drops its prey. It’s deadly and has a great sporting tradition.”
New Orleans Saints (1967)
The New Orleans pro football franchise was fittingly established on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1966. The name was thusly a popular submission during a name contest sponsored by the New Orleans States-Item. Team owner John Mecom admired the name for encompassing the spirit of the city of jazz. The mascot was also a reference to the popular song, “When The Saints Go Marching In.”
New England Patriots (1970)
1970 was a momentous year for professional football. The AFL merged with the NFL, bringing with it the Boston Patriots (now New England Patriots) alongside the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Houston Oilers (now Houston Texans), Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers (now Los Angeles Chargers). When Boston received its own AFL franchise in 1960, the team embraced the name Patriots in recognition of the region’s historical roots to the start of the American Revolution. In 1971, the Boston Patriots became what we now know as the New England Patriots.
Buffalo Bills (1970)
Buffalo’s new team joined the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) in 1946 under the name Bisons. The first mascot barely lasted a year before a renaming contest was held in 1947, prompting the adoption of the current name, Bills. The name originated from famous western frontiersman, Buffalo Bill Cody, and paralleled the spirit of the frontier.
Cincinnati Bengals (1970)
To honor the first Cincinnati Bengals team which played between 1937 and 1942 as part of the AFL, team owner Paul Brown kept the new expansion franchise’s name during its inauguration in 1968. Brown appreciated the historical link to the team’s predecessor favoring the name Bengals over fan-favorite proposal, Buckeyes.
Denver Broncos (1970)
In 1960, 162 fans submitted name suggestions for Denver’s new professional football team. Participant Ward M. Vining proposed the winning name Broncos, an unbroken horse, to pay homage to the region’s Wild Western legacy.
Kansas City Chiefs (1970)
The Chiefs were first inducted into the AFL in 1960 under the name, Dallas Texans. By 1963 the team relocated to Kansas City before changing its name to the Chiefs. Owner Lamar Hunt also considered Mules, Royals and Stars but ultimately decided that the name Chiefs was historically important to the Native Americans who once dwelt within the area. It’s possible that Hunt also did so as a token of gratitude to Kansas City mayor H. Roe Bartle, who was sometimes referred to as The Chief.
Miami Dolphins (1970)
In a 1965 name contest, 600 of nearly 20,000 fans who submitted entries suggested the name Dolphins for Miami’s AFL franchise. Owner Joe Robbie supported the name, stating that “The dolphin is one of the fastest and smartest creatures in the sea.”
New York Jets (1970)
First established in 1960 as the New York Titans, the team’s name changed to Jets in 1963 after Sonny Werblin purchased the franchise and appealed for a new mascot that reflected a “modern approach.” In addition, the original home of the Jets, Shea Stadium, was located close to LaGuardia Airport. Other names considered included the Dodgers, Gothams and Borros.
Oakland Raiders (1970)
Before agreeing to the name Raiders, the Oakland franchise originally approved the name Señors as a reference to the first Spanish settlers who arrived in northern California. However, the mascot fell under harsh criticism forcing general manager Chet Soda to quickly abandon it. By the time the 1960 season started, the new team officially operated under the title, Oakland Raiders.
Los Angeles Chargers (1970)
In 1960, team owner Barron Hilton sponsored a name contest for his newly acquired franchise. After receiving a flood of letters, Hilton eventually came across the name Chargers submitted by Gerald Courtney. Reportedly, Hilton was so fond of the name that he didn’t bother to open any more letters. He explained to reporters that he liked the bugle that played alongside the cry, “Charge!” at Dodgers Stadium and Los Angeles Colosseum.
Seattle Seahawks (1976)
In 1975, a Seattle public naming contest drew in more than 20,000 submissions with 1,700 unique suggestions. About 150 participants proposed the name Seahawks, a nickname for the large bird of prey native to the Pacific Northwest known as the Osprey. Among other names that weren’t chosen included Skippers, Pioneers, Lumberjacks and Seagulls. According to the team’s general manager John Thompson, “Our new name suggests aggressiveness, reflects our soaring Northwest heritage and belongs to no other major league team.”
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1976)
Prior to joining the league in 1976 alongside the Seahawks, a team of NFL representatives reviewed a list of more than 400 possible team names. The board ultimately selected Buccaneers in reference to a local legend of pirates that raided the coasts of Florida throughout the 17th century.
Carolina Panthers (1995)
Son of team owner Jerry Richardson, Mark Richardson chose the name and colors for North Carolina’s new team. He believed that the name Panthers signifies what a team should be – “powerful, sleek and strong.” Richardson also opted for the black, blue and silver color scheme because he felt it matched the team mascot’s strength and resilience.
Jacksonville Jaguars (1995)
Four years before the city of Jacksonville’s newly acquired team started playing in the league in 1995, a fan contest was held in December of 1991 to determine the team’s name. Among those considered, Sharks and Stingrays were some of the most popular, but Jaguars ultimately stood out. Though the large speckled feline is not native to Jacksonville, the oldest living jaguar in North America resided at the Jacksonville Zoo.
Baltimore Ravens (1997)
In a phone-in poll staged by the Baltimore Sun, more than 21,000 out of 33,000 callers voted for the name, Ravens. The name was a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven.” After Poe’s death in 1849, he was buried in the city of Baltimore. Other popular names considered included the Marauders, Railers, Bulldogs and Mustangs. The Baltimore Ravens officially joined the NFL in 1997.
Houston Texans (2002)
Last but not least came the Houston Texans in 2002, replacing the previously departed Houston Oilers. In March of 2000, the team pondered five mascot options: the Apollos, Bobcats, Stallions, Wildcatters and Texans. By September 6, 2000, the team announced the Texans’ official name, logo and colors.