How NFL Teams Got Their Nicknames: The North


What do iron alloys and poetry have to do with American football? Learn the history and science of the nicknames of the NFL.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens


When Art Modell, former owner of the Cleveland Browns and charter owner of the Baltimore Ravens, moved the team from Cleveland and established a new team in Baltimore in 1996, it was a huge sport’s controversy. A franchise was returned to Cleveland in 1999, and all the Brown’s history, colors, awards, and name would remain in Cleveland.

A poll was conducted find a new name for the Baltimore franchise, and “Ravens” was overwhelmingly chosen as the team’s new nickname. The name was inspired by the famous American author, Edgar Allen Poe, and his classic poem The Raven. Poe was a former resident of Baltimore, MD. He died and is buried there. Art Modell said, “Ravens gives us a strong nickname that is not common to teams at any level, and it gives one that means something historically to this community”.

“In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
…Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

— Edgar Allan Poe, 1845

Cincinnati Bengals


The Bengals’, established in 1968, nickname was chosen to honor the former Cincinnati Bengals football team (1937–1941). In addition, the city’s famous zoo was also home to a rare white Bengal Tiger.

In typical NFL tradition, a contest was held so that fans could submit entries for the team’s new name. The popular entry ‘Buckeyes’ was not chosen by the team’s owner, Paul Brown, who also was the Bengals’ general manager and head coach.

Note: Bengal tigers are endangered. There are fewer than 2,500 left in the wild. Habitat loss and poaching are the two biggest reasons for the decrease in population. 

Cleveland Browns


In 1944, Paul Brown, former head coach for Ohio State Buckeyes and future Bengals owner, was chosen as the Brown’s first head coach and general manager. A contest was held and Browns was the most popular entry. Paul Brown rejected the nickname; he did not like the thought of the team being named after him. He chose the second most popular nickname, the Panthers, but someone already owned the rights to that name. Therefore, another contest was conducted, and the nickname Browns was selected.

There is debate whether the team was named after Joe “Brown Bomber” Lewis or Paul Brown. However, knowing the sequence of events, it is more likely the team was named after Paul Brown than Joe Lewis.

Note: Hall of Famer, Jim Brown, who the team is most certainly not named after, is considered to be one of the best football players of all time. Jim Brown was also inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1983 for his lacrosse career at Syracuse. 

Image via Reddit

Image via Reddit

Brown is quoted as having said, “I’d rather play lacrosse six days a week and football on the seventh.”

Pittsburgh Steelers



Previously the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team held a contest and renamed itself the Steelers in 1940. The nickname represented the city’s steel industry of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Carnegie Steel Company and other steel mill owners in Pittsburgh had a massive impact on the cities population and economic growth. The logo is based on the Steelmark logo.


Steelmark Logo


In the 1950s, when helmet logos became popular, the Steelers added players’ numbers to either side of their gold helmets. Later that decade, the numbers were removed and in 1962, Cleveland’s Republic Steel suggested to the Steelers that they use the Steelmark as a helmet logo.

When the Steelmark logo was created, U.S. Steel attached the following meaning to it: Steel lightens your work, brightens your leisure and widens your world. The logo was used as part of a major marketing campaign to educate consumers about how important steel is in our daily lives. The Steelmark logo was used in print, radio and television ads as well as on labels for all steel products, from steel tanks to tricycles to filing cabinets.

The official site of the Pittsburgh Steelers

 NFC North

Chicago Bears



The Bears’ franchise started in Decatur, IL in 1919 as the Decatur Staleys. The team was named after A. E. Staley.  In 1921, the Bears moved to Chicago, and the owner, George Halas, later changed their nickname to the Bears. The name was chosen to compliment the city’s professional baseball team, Chicago Cubs. The Chicago Bears are only one of two charter members of the National Football League (NFL).

Detroit Lions


The Detroit Lions started as the Portsmouth Spartans in 1929. The Great Depression caused the successful team to spiral into financial despair. The team was sold in 1934. The new owner, a Detroit radio executive named George Richards, moved the team to Detroit, MI. Like many other NFL teams of the early 1900’s, the team’s nickname related to the city’s professional baseball team, Detroit Tigers.

Green Bay Packers


Founded in 1919, the team was started by Earl ‘Curly’ Lambeau and George Whitney Calhoun. Lambeau, a Packer player and first head coach, asked his employer, the Indian Packing Company, to sponsor the team so they could purchase equipment and uniforms. Later, the company was sold to the Acme Packing Company, and the team became the Acme Packers. The Green Bay Packers, which is the oldest name in the NFL, have kept Packer nickname for over 96 years.

Image via Time.

Image via Time.

Note: Packers fans are often called cheeseheads in reference to the large cheese industry in Minnesota. The nickname started as a taunt from Chicago fans, a long-time rival of the Packers, but Packers’ fans made embraced it.

Speaking of rivals, the Bears and Packers have a long, deep-seated rivalry. The Packers joined the NFL for the 1921 season but lost their franchise because they illegally used college football players. It was the Halas, the owner of the Chicago Staleys/Bears, who had informed the league of this disregard of rules and regulations. The Packers would quickly get its franchise restored thanks to the “Hungry Five” which would later become the Green Bay Packers Board of Directors, but this started the long-time rivalry between Chicago and Green Bay.

Minnesota Vikings


The Minnesota Vikings were awarded a franchise for the American Football League (AFL) in 1960 but did not officially play in the league. The Vikings quickly dropped the AFL and were awarded a franchise a few months later from the NFL and officially began play in 1961. The nickname was chosen to celebrate Minnesota’s Scandinavian heritage. Bert Rose, first general manager of the Vikings, said that the name was selected because it represented both an aggressive person with the will to win and the Nordic tradition in the northern Midwest.

The Homestead Act of 1862 was established to get people to settle parts of the American West. To encourage use of the new railroads, many Europeans including people from Scandinavia where encouraged to move to the northern Great Plains with the the promise of free farmland. Many immigrants who settled Minnesota and the northern Midwest were from Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Today, much of Minnesota’s culture is influenced by its Scandinavian heritage.


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All images are courtesy of Wikipedia unless otherwise noted. 

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