The history of the NFL and how it was founded is a rather interesting one. The league’s number of teams fluctuated from 1920 to 1970 with the “original eight” forming part of the NFL in 1932. It wasn’t until the AFL-NFL merger that the league became the real NFL we know today, with 32 competent teams and a dominant fanbase in the United States.
In July of 2020, the Washington Football Team, previously known as the Redskins, announced their rebranding, and then in 2022 this was confirmed as a full official change to the Washington Commanders. It is uncommon for teams to change their names in the NFL these days, however, before 1999, there were quite a few. Let’s take a look at how these teams got their original names, and the history behind their name changes.
NFL Teams that changed names without moving cities
Throughout the history of the NFL, there have been teams that moved cities, and in doing so changed names, like the Houston Oilers becoming the Titans after moving to Tennessee. And then there have been teams that just adopted new mascot names without moving cities; the latest being the aforementioned Washington in honor of Native American players.
There are three other teams in the NFL that have changed their mascots without moving: the New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chicago Bears, while the Dallas Cowboys (previously Dallas Rangers) and Oakland Raiders (Oakland Senors previously) each rebranded their official names before playing any games in 1960.
The New York Jets, “New York Titans”
The Jets were known as the “Titans” from 1960-1962 when they played at the Polo Grounds. After moving to the Shea Stadium in 1963, they were called the Jets as a representation of the aircraft in the skies above.
Pittsburgh Steelers “Pittsburgh Pirates”
In 1940, Art Rooney, Pittsburgh’s owner, decided to change the NFL franchise’s name to something different than the MLB’s name at the time. The name ‘Steelers’ was chosen as a way to honor all the steel workers, fans and city.
Chicago Bears “Chicago Staleys”
They were the Decatur Staleys until they moved to Chicago in 1921. Already having moved, they decided to change Staleys to the Bears, since the town’s MLB team was called the Chicago Cubs.
NFL teams that changed names and moved cities:
Arizona Cardinals “Card-Pitt”
Founded in 1898 in Chicago, the Cardinals were named the Racine Cardinals- after the street where they played their home games. The origin of the Cardinals’ name came from founder Chris O’Brien when he received a shipment of faded maroon jerseys that he called “Cardinal red”. In 1944, the Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers combined to form “Card-Pitt” during the last full year of World War II. In 1950, they moved to St. Louis and it wasn’t until 1999 when they settled in Phoenix, AZ and became the Arizona Cardinals.
Baltimore Ravens “Baltimore Browns”
Founded in Cleveland by Art Modell, the Cleveland Browns became the Baltimore Browns after moving to Baltimore. The NFL franchise chose the name “Ravens” because of a poem by the respected writer, Edgar Allan Poe, who had been one of Baltimore’s most famous former residents.
Detroit Lions “Portsmouth Spartans”
The Lions went by the “Portsmouth Spartans” from 1930-1933 where they trained at the Spartan Municipal Stadium on the banks of the Ohio River. After moving to the Motor City, Detroit, the team changed its name to the Lions, after the town’s MLB “Tigers” team.
Indianapolis Colts “Baltimore Colts”
Indiana’s NFL franchise was referred to as the Baltimore Colts from 1953-1983. The team moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984 by its owner at the time, Bob Irsay- who is the current owner’s father. The team was named the “Colts” in honor of the area’s history of horse breeding.
Kansas City Chiefs “Dallas Texans”
This team was known as the Dallas Texans until they moved to Kansas City for the 1963 AFL season. The name change signified the Native Americans and the mayor at the time who’s nickname was “Chief”.
Philadelphia Eagles “Steagles”
The Eagles were created when the Frankford Yellow Jackets went defunct. In 1943, they merged with the Pittsburgh Steelers as the country was recovering from the Great Depression and were known as the “Steagles”. The team’s name came from their founder, Bert Bell, who was inspired by the government organization’s logo, the eagle, as it gave him a sense of hope and optimism.
Tennessee Titans “Tennessee Oilers”
The AFL team were referred to as the Houston Oilers when they played in oil-rich Houston from 1960 to 1996. In a tribute to the team’s town in Nashville upon their move, they were named the Titans, which meant “The Athens of the South.”
Houston Texans ‘Houston Oilers”
The Texans replaced Houston’s previous NFL franchise, the Houston Oilers, who are now the Tennessee Titans. In 2000, the Oilers were revived by owner Bob McNair, to become the “Texans”. He preferred the simple ‘Texans’ over the suggested Apollos and Stallions.