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They’re called the what?

Posted by Chase Stuart on August 12, 2008

Since the 2008 season is almost here, I decided it would be good to teach my girlfriend about which teams are in which divisions, along with some NFL history. While I'm sure she got way more than she bargained for, she also asked me some questions that I really couldn't answer. For one, she said, are there lots of Cardinals in Arizona? Showing off my knowledge, I was able to say "of course not, honey; the Cardinals actually started off in Chicago." To which she replied "I don't think there are many cardinals in Chicago, either." Needless to say, I had no response to that. So we went to Wikipedia and this neat link from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I was surprised to read how many of the teams got their nicknames, and I thought some of the faithful PFR blog readers might be curious to hear about it, too.

Buffalo Bills: Buffalo had an NFL franchise as early as 1922, the Buffalo All-Americans. Two years later they were renamed the Buffalo Bisons, until the team folded during the Depression. When the AAFC was created, Buffalo was given a franchise, and in 1946 the AAFC's Buffalo Bisons were born. The next year the team changed the nickname to 'Bills', and played until the league folded in 1949. There are two different stories to explain the change. According to Wikipedia, the team was given the name Bills after the (at the time) famous barbershop quartet that was formed in Buffalo. Yes, it may be that the original Buffalo Bills were named after an a capella group. According to the NFL, a fan contest was held to rename the team, and the winning entry was 'Bills', after he famous western frontiersman, Buffalo Bill Cody.

Whatever the origin, when Ralph Wilson was given an AFL team in Buffalo, he decided to take the old name from the AAFC franchise.

Miami Dolphins: Miami was one of the two AFL expansion franchises (Cincinnati was the other), and the first major professional sports team in the state. The AAFC did have the Miami Seahawks for a year, but a fan contest chose the name 'Dolphins' for the AFL club. Other finalists included the: Mariners, Marauders, Mustangs, Missiles, Moons, Sharks, and Suns. As you'll continue to see, sports fans and NFL franchises seem to love alliteration. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, owner Joe Robbie said he liked the name because "the dolphin is one of the fastest and smartest creatures in the sea."

New England Patriots: Another original AFL franchise, the team played as the Boston Patriots until 1971. While the origin of Patriots is pretty obvious -- Boston and the greater New England area were at the center of the American Revolution -- prior Boston owners didn't necessarily feel the same way. Before the current franchise, Boston football had the Bulldogs and [gasp] the Yanks.

New York Jets: The AFL's New York franchise started out as the Titans, which evokes awfully similar images as the name of New York's other football franchise. After three financially poor seasons, Sonny Werblin and Leon Hess rescued the team from bankruptcy in March, 1963. Hess changed the team colors to reflect the Green and White colors from his gasoline franchise, and the owners decided to change the nickname as well. The Mets were popular, if unsuccessful, and the Jets were looking to relocate to Shea Stadium, located right next to LaGuardia Airport. The loud jets at the airport, along with a desire to catch some of the momentum of the "Mets" nickname, convinced the team to change its name to the Jets. For a season, they even sported this helmet. Four years later, the New Jersey Basketball franchise decided to keep the rhyming theme going, naming its team the Nets.

Baltimore Ravens: Obviously Baltimore first had the Colts before the Ravens. An earlier basketball team had taken the Baltimore Bullets. While the baseball franchise was also named after a bird, the Ravens were so named to honor poet Edgar Allen Poe. His famous poem, "The Raven", was written in Baltimore, and was the most popular pick in a small fan contest.

Cleveland Browns: Cleveland football had seen the Rams, the Bulldogs, and two versions of the Indians, before Paul Brown came to town. When the AAFC was formed, thanks to Otto Graham and Brown, Cleveland was quickly and clearly the most dominant team in the league. A fan contest selected the name to honor the beloved coach and general manager. Brown originally vetoed the name and wanted to go with "Panthers" (another common trend), but a local Cleveland football team held the rights to that nickname. You might wonder how an expansion franchise could name itself after an incredibly successful coach -- that would only be incredibly successful for the franchise after it was formed. Brown had first become famous as coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes, which might explain why the people of Ohio wanted to name their new football team after him. But Wikipedia has another answer, claiming a fan contest chose the nickname Brown Bombers after reigning heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Louis. That name was then shortened to Browns, according to Wikipedia. I'm not sure which explanation is more convincing, but I've always heard the Paul Brown story.

Cincinnati Bengals: After Art Modell had bought out Paul Brown from the NFL's Browns, and subsequently fired him, Brown was left without a home. He went over the AFL, and formed the Cincinnati Bengals. He chose the same shade of orange that adorned his old Cleveland franchise, but then wanted to pick a team name that reflected Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Zoo at the time had a famous Bengal Tiger, and it's possible that played into the team nickname. According to, Brown chose the name to honor the three prior professional football teams in Cincinnati, all named the Bengals (origins for those names, unknown).

Pittsburgh Steelers: Like the Patriots team name, this one isn't too hard to decipher. While the original franchise was called the Pirates, to mirror the city's baseball team, in 1940 owner Art Rooney renamed the team to reflect that Pittsburgh was the steel capital of the country.

Houston Texans: The NFL's newest franchise, Houston entered the league in 2002. Ownership narrowed the nickname list down to five: the Apollos, Bobcats, Stallions, Texans and Wildcatters. Houston already had the Rockets and the Astros, and I think we're all thankful that they don't now have the Wildcatters. Note that Lamar Hunt once owned the Dallas Texans before relocating them to Kansas City and renaming them the Chiefs, and an earlier football franchise in Dallas was also called the Texans.

Indianapolis Colts: There aren't many horses in Indianapolis, but the Colts never chose to change their team name following the 1984 move from Baltimore. Three different Baltimore football teams were named the Colts, paying homage to the rich racing tradition of the city. Horce racing fans know that Pimlico Racetrack, home of the Preakness Stakes, is located in Baltimore.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Another fan contest was used to select this name. The trend for figuring out team nicknames goes something like this. When in doubt, use a scary animal. If possible, have the first letter of the location match the first letter of the animal. The Jaguars, of course, were one of the most recent expansion teams in the league. In the early '90s the league had chosen five potential cities for a new franchise, and since then, all five received NFL teams (Jacksonville, Memphis (where the Titans played for two seasons), Charlotte, St. Louis and Baltimore). The Jacksonville and Carolina franchises entered the league in the same year, and Jacksonville even considered naming its team the Panthers.

Tennessee Titans: The Titans franchise began in Houston, of course, as the Oilers. It made a lot of sense for a Texas team to be named the Oilers, but not so much for a Tennessee team. After playing two seasons as the Tennessee Oilers, Bud Adams chose to go with Titans as the new nickname, which also fits in with Nashville's reputation as "The Athens of the South".

Denver Broncos: The Nuggets (gold mining was a main reason Colorado and Denver flourished in the 19th century), Avalanche and Rockies all make some sense as Denver nicknames. But the Broncos? One the original AFL teams, 'Broncos' was chosen in yet another fan contest. A 1921 baseball team bore the same name, but it's unclear exactly why it was picked then, either. I'm not very familiar with Denver history, but it appears as thought the National Western Stock Show has been a pretty big rodeo for awhile. I don't know if Denver is known as a rodeo city, but that might help explain why the Bronco was chosen for the team nickname.

Kansas City Chiefs: As mentioned earlier, Lamar Hunt entered the AFL with a team in Dallas known as the Texans. After moving to Kansas City, a fan contest selected the Chiefs nickname. The K.C. mayor at the time was nicknamed 'The Chief', although that appears unrelated. At the time of the move, Kansas City was home to Major League Baseball's Athletics, although that name came out of Philadelphia many years earlier. I'm not sure if there's some special tie between the Native American community and Kansas City, or if they just thought the name sounded cool.

Oakland Raiders: Like their AFC West rivals, the Raiders origin is a bit ambiguous as well. Oakland wasn't even supposed to get an AFL franchise initially, and after being awarded one, the Senors was chosen as the team name. That was discarded before their very first game, with Raiders replacing the name. The original team colors were black and silver ... and gold. Like a lot of things Raiders, not a whole lot is known about why they are the way they are, or are named what they're named.

San Diego Chargers: Rounding out the quartet of this division, the origin of the Chargers nickname is also unclear. Initially the Los Angeles Chargers, Barron Hilton was the founder of this original AFL franchise. As if that wasn't a big enough accomplishment, he's also Paris Hilton's grandfather. According to the Chargers website, a fan contest was held and Chargers was selected as the winner. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Chargers GM at the time enjoyed the fan cheers of "Charge!" at the local Dodgers and Trojans games. That seems a bit dubious to me, though, as the GM was Frank Leahy -- former head coach of Notre Dame.

That does it for the AFC. We'll visit the NFC later on this week.