How NFL Teams Got Their Nicknames: The East


What do FDR’s New Deal and an airport have to do with American Football? Learn the history and science behind the nicknames of the NFL.

AFC East

 Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills used to be called the Buffalo Bison back in the 1940s. This was when they were still a part of the All-American Football Conference. The owner at the time held a contest to give the team a new name. It seems that rebranding an franchise’s image by changing it’s name is an old football tradition. The new name, Buffalo Bills, was a play on the gun-slinging buffalo hunter, Buffalo Bill Cody, who was very popular American figure at the time.

Note: Buffalo in America are actually bison not buffalo. The names are used interchangeably here even though buffalo are not native to North America. Some European settler called them the wrong thing a long time ago and the name stuck. Happens a lot in history.

Miami Dolphins

In 1965, a contest was held to select a nickname for the new American Football League franchise in Florida. Close to 20,000 entries were submitted, and ‘Dolphins‘ was submitted by 622 entrants. Some of the other popular submissions were Mariners, Marauders, Mustangs, Missiles, Moons, Sharks, and Suns, but none of those could raise a fin to the runaway winner.

Bottlenose dolphins, which can be found off the long Florida coast, are known for their agility, intelligence, bravery, charisma, and fearlessness. Joe Robbie, the original owner of the Miami Dolphins, said, “The dolphin is one of the fastest and smartest creatures of the sea. Dolphins can attack and kill a shark or a whale. Sailors say bad luck will come to anyone who harms one of them.

New England Patriots


Established in 1959, the Boston Patriots were the eighth and final franchise of the newly developed American Football League . A contest was held to select the team’s name. The Patriots was chosen out of thousands of entries. In 1971, the Patriots moved to a new stadium in Foxborough, MA. They changed their name to Bay Stay Patriots, but that name was quickly rejected by the NFL. The franchise settled on New England Patriots. New England is an old, traditional term for the northeast region of the United States.

The name, Patriots (mid to late 1700’s), refers to the English colonists in the 13 colonies who rebelled against Britain during the American Revolution. Boston was known as a rebellious colony. One particular group, the Sons of Liberty, were a secret society who protested unfair treatment in the English Colonies. The Sons of Liberty were responsible for the famous Boston Tea Party, had an organized militia called Minutemen, and organized protests against oppressive laws. They gave impassioned speeches, wrote effective arguments, and drew political cartoons in newspapers and pamphlets. Patriots in all colonies including Boston were angry at the erosion of their colonial government, oppressive acts and laws, and persecution from British soldiers. The Patriots were know for their intelligence, bravery, and fearlessness in the face of massive adversity.

New York Jets


The New York Titans were established in 1959. The charter owner of the Titans, Harry Wismer, stated the purpose of the name was because, “Titans are bigger and stronger than Giants“. By 1963 the franchise was bankrupt. Purchased for $1,000,000, the New York Titans were renamed the Jets. Since the newly purchased team was going to play in Shea Stadium, which was close to LaGuardia Airport, the Jets was chosen as the nickname to the new, modern team.

 NFC East

Dallas Cowboys


Cowboys were an important tradition in Texas history. Before the completion of the transcontinental railroads, the cowboys (and vaqueros) would herd livestock along the different trails in historic cattle drives. When the National Football League (NFL) granted Dallas a franchise team, owners toyed with some other uniquely Texan terms: Steers and Rangers. Finally, the owners settled on the Dallas Cowboys in 1960.

Note: A steer is a castrated male bull. Not really an awesome nickname when you think about it.

New York Giants


The New York Giants were founded in 1925 and has been owned by the same family since its inception. The Giants got its nickname from the New York Giants, the city’s Major League Baseball (MLB) team.  The MLB team would later move to San Francisco. In the early 1900’s, it was typical for one sports team to directly or indirectly nickname their team after another local sports team.

Philadelphia Eagles


In 1931, the NFL franchise, Frankford Yellowjackets, went bankrupt. The team was purchased in 1933, and the new owners renamed the team the Eagles in honor of the Blue Eagle symbol of the Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration.

Graphic of NRA Blue Eagle, ca. 1933 via National Archives

Graphic of NRA Blue Eagle, ca. 1933 via National Archives

Washington Redskins


Originally from Boston, the Boston Braves relocated to Washington D.C. in 1937. The origin of the Redskins’ nickname is debatable. Some reports indicate that that name was chosen replace Braves with a different, common Native American moniker. Other reports assert that the owner changed the nickname to the Redskins to honor the team’s part-blood Sioux head coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz. There’s also controversy about whether or not the first head coach was even Sioux.

Today, the term redskin to identify any Native American is considered derogatory.  Objection to the nickname, Redskins, have brewed for years and pleas for a name change continue today.


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 All NFL logo images are courtesy of Wikipedia unless otherwise noted. 

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