“Playoffs? Don’t talk about – playoffs? You kiddin’ me? Playoffs? I just hope we can win a game!” Indianapolis coach Jim Mora in 2001 after local sports reporter Tim Bragg observed that the Colts would probably have to win their last 6 games to make the playoffs.

With the playoffs now upon us and the New England Patriots players now working on their golf games, this seems like a good time to give New England fans something else to do — like read a column full of trivia about the names of NFL teams. This week we’ll look at the team names in the old NFL, which, in this case, will take us up to about 1960 and the birth of the American Football League (AFL).

A good place to start is in Green Bay, Wisconsin, back in 1919. That’s when coach and general manager Earl “Curly” Lambeau persuaded the Indian Packing Company to sponsor his football team.

Around 1921 the Decatur (Illinois) Staleys set up shop in Chicago. The following year the team took its lead from the city’s animal-themed baseball team, the Cubs, and changed its name to the Bears (or “Da Bears,” if you’re a fan of Saturday Night Live).

Around that time the Morgan Athletic Club changed its name to the Chicago Cardinals, after their faded red jerseys, and would stay in the Windy City until the team’s move to St. Louis in 1960. Sharing a name with the same city’s professional baseball team, the football squad would become the Phoenix Cardinals in 1988, changing to the Arizona Cardinals in 1994.

Even though they play their home games in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the team owned by three generations of the Mara family is officially the New York Football Giants, so as not to be confused with the baseball team that moved to San Francisco in 1957.


In the early 1930s the Portsmouth Spartans, who’d played at Spartan Municipal Stadium on the banks of the Ohio River, became the Detroit Lions, adopting a cat-theme like the city’s baseball team, the Tigers.

The Boston football team called itself the Braves (after the city’s former baseball team, which had previously been known as the Red Stockings) for one season, then changed to the Redskins in 1932. Five years later the Redskins moved to Washington and have recently been known as the Washington Football Team and now the Washington Commanders.

After his team had played seven seasons as the Pittsburgh Pirates, team owner Art Rooney held a naming contest along with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which, in 1940, led to the squad being renamed the Steelers.

Founded in 1933 was the Philadelphia team that owner Bert Bell christened the Eagles because he was inspired by our government’s symbol and the hope it represented.

In 1943 the shortage of players forced the Steelers to join forces with the Philadelphia Eagles. Though the squad was officially known as Phil-Pitt, everybody called them the Steagles. The following year, still short on players, the Steelers would temporarily form the Card-Pitt team with the Chicago Cardinals.

The Rams took their name from the powerhouse Fordham Rams, supposedly because the moniker was short and fit easily into newspaper headlines. They spent their first decade in Cleveland before moving to Los Angeles in 1946. In 1995 the team became the St. Louis Rams for a couple decades before returning to LA in 2016. (The Rams are the only team to win an NFL championship in three different cities: Cleveland, 1945; LA, 1951 and 2021; St. Louis, 1999.)


The Cleveland Browns got their name following a fan vote that determined they should be named after their original coach and co-founder, Paul Brown. After 50 years in Cleveland, team owner Art Modell moved the squad to Baltimore in 1995. Fans revolted. The city helped work out a new stadium that opened in 1999, the Browns’ history, records and intellectual property ended up staying in Cleveland under a new Cleveland Browns owner, and Modell’s new Baltimore Ravens became technically an expansion team. (We’ll take a look at them next week.)

Finally, the alphanumeric San Francisco 49ers took their name from Northern California’s 1849 gold-rush prospectors, while the Baltimore Colts were so named in honor of the area’s history of horse breeding before becoming the Indianapolis Colts in 1984.

Next week we’ll look at the names of the teams that have joined the NFL since 1960.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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