Since my rankings of baseball team names drew so much attention and
venomous vitriol constructive criticism, I thought it was time to take another swing at it, this time with NFL team names. As a rule, football team names are more generic and have less local color than those in baseball. But there are a few gems, and one or two stinkers.
Again, this is an aesthetic, not scientific exercise. It represents only my taste. You may – and probably will – disagree with me. That’s cool. I’d love to see how others rank teams.
I’m using the same three basic criterion as I did for baseball:
* Originality. Sort of obvious, but I favor teams that don’t share a nickname with other teams, in any sport. It doesn’t matter to me if a team got its unoriginal name in some novel way; if they’re still called the Tigers or Pirates, it’s a hackneyed name.
* Geographic specificity. Does the name refer to something that’s unique or characteristic to the city or region? Would it be jarring if the team was relocated? (See: Utah Jazz)
* Unmarketability: I don’t like names that are designed to sell jerseys or appeal to teenagers. I like names that feel organic, and emerge from history.
I’m also adding a new criteria: Footballishness. This is hard to pin down (and can sometimes conflict with unmarketability), but a football team name should reflect the gritty, tough nature of the sport. The sweet, whimsical nicknames of baseball won’t cut it in football.
Note that I don’t always give these criterion equal weight. Unusual strength or weakness in one category may swamp the others.
Lastly, you’ll note I’ve only ranked 31 teams. I’ve omitted the Washington Redskins, whose name is so bad that it makes the distinctions between the others meaningless. In the Tour de France, the peaks are ranked by difficulty, with the highest mountain hors categorie – beyond categorization. The Redskins are hors categorie.
In reverse order this time:
31, Jacksonville Jaguars
Everything about the Jaguars seems focus-group tested and ad agency designed. “We need a ferocious animal that starts with a J. What’s available?” Even if Jaguars once prowled northern Florida, it would still be cheesy. It doesn’t help that half of U.S. sportscasters pronounce it “jag-wire.”
30, Arizona Cardinals
Here’s a good example of how a name that’s great in baseball doesn’t necessarily work in football. A cardinal is a pretty, shy bird – about as un-footballish as you can get. Even toughening up their logo didn’t help. It’s definitely unmarketable, and I guess they deserve credit for sticking with it after their moves from Chicago to St. Louis to Phoenix, but it still fails the originality and specificity tests.
29, Atlanta Falcons
Boring, generic and bland. “Falcons” sounds like the name assigned to fictional teams on TV and in movies. Could be from anywhere, playing any sport.
28, Kansas City Chiefs
I wrestled a bit about what to do with the Chiefs. According to my categories, they deserve a low ranking. But they also have the odious appropriation of Native American imagery, so perhaps they should join the Redskins in oblivion. But I think they are clearly not as bad as the Redskins, which is a straight-up racist insult. Chiefs, while goofy and insensitive, doesn’t suggest actual malice and could be easily tweaked to remove the Native American connotation.
27, New York Giants
As a Giants fan since 1986, it pains me to rank them so low. But I must. It’s not original (the baseball team had them beat by decades) and it’s not specific. The giants of Greek mythology do have an interesting origin. According to Hesiod, Chronos, the Titan, castrated his father, Uranus, and the drops of blood that spurt forth were raised by his mother Gaia into giants.
26, Carolina Panthers
Another big, mean cat. Yawn.
25, Detroit Lions
See above. For some reason, there aren’t nearly was many Lions in major U.S. sports as Tigers, Panthers, Cougars or (the worst) Wildcats. Penn State is the only other one I can think of (Columbia doesn’t count. I said major sports).
24, Tennessee Titans
More mythology. The Titans are a bit more interesting than Giants (and I like the nod to classicism in the logo). But aside from the ersatz Parthenon in Nashville, I’m not sure what the connection is between Tennessee and Ancient Greece. The franchise used to be a the Houston Oilers, which was a great name. This is not.
23, New York Jets
The Jets used to be the known as the Titans (not that it would help them here). They changed their name to the Jets when they began playing in Shea Stadium, near LaGuardia Airport, so they’ve got some local connection in their name, but it’s not very specific or unique (Winnipeg Jets, anyone?). Nor is it very footballish. It is a great name for headline writers, though, and fills out the New York troika of Mets, Nets and Jets nicely.
22, Indianapolis Colts
A storied franchise, an uninspired name. It’s equally at home in Indianapolis as it was in Baltimore, which is to say it has no local connection and could fit anywhere. If the name suggests anything besides young horses, it’s the Old West and Colt .45s. Their logo is kind of Old West-ish, too. That doesn’t make much sense in either Baltimore or Indianapolis.
21, St. Louis Rams
Another team that moved without any need to update its name. Never a good sign. Rams are unoriginal and unspecific, but it does have a good footballish quality. “Ram” is a great verb for the sport. I would have had them higher but I remembered that a ram, at the end of the day, is still a sheep.
20, Oakland Raiders
Great colors, great mascot but a mediocre name. If there’s something piratical about Northern California, I’m unaware of it. It does have a nice sound to it, though.
19, Chicago Bears
Heresy! you say. Sacrilege! What could be more footballish than the Chicago Bears? But great tradition is not a great name. There are lots of teams called the Bears (or Bruins), and bears could once be found everywhere in the U.S. As a name, it’s nothing special. (The Bears started life as the Decatur Staleys, which, needless to say, was a GREAT name.)
18, Dallas Cowboys
Despite my loathing of the Cowboys as a team and franchise, I couldn’t figure out how to rank them any lower. It’s really not that bad a name. Not very original, but definitely regionally specific. And not obviously marketable, either. The team gets far more mileage pushing its cheerleaders than its horrible mascot.
17, Cincinnati Bengals
Here’a team I wish I could rank higher. It’s original (even if it’s a derivative of the ubiquitous tiger mascot) and it’s the basis for one of the best helmets in the NFL (a subject for another list). But there are no more tigers in Cincinnati than there are in Detroit, and even if the team has been around for a while (and named after an even older Bengal team), the name does have the whiff of a marketing decision. If the team dropped the tiger motif and went with the Bengalis, they would score much higher in originality.
16, Denver Broncos
Broncos aren’t a huge improvement over Colts, but the name does make more sense in Denver than in Indianapolis. And Broncos are a more rugged version of horse. Like a lot of these names, it’s fine, but unexceptional.
15, Philadelphia Eagles
The connection to Philadelphia’s role in American history helps elevate the Eagles above the other generic flesh-ripping animals, but it’s still not a great name. There are a lot of Eagles out there.
14, Houston Texans
“Texans” is an odd choice for a name, so I sort of like it. It’s hard to imagine a team in any other state doing something similar. (The Columbus Ohioans? The Birmingham Alabamians?) It’s a naked appeal to Texas’s weird sense of state-patriotism (and is another nod to an earlier team), and is obviously local. Still, the Oilers were a great name and it’s too bad they didn’t revive that one.
13, New England Patriots
Definitely local, definitely original. Not obviously footballish (I tend to think of wizened men in powdered wigs like John Adams when I think of New England patriots). They did remedy that in their earlier logo with the burly, 18th century football player who they sadly replaced with the weird logo they use now. The name Patriots does sort of bug me, if only if it implies everyone else is not a patriot. But maybe I’m being too sensitive.
12, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Unlike a lot of pirate-type teams, the Buccaneers have some claim to the name because of Gasparilla, a legendary (and maybe fictional) pirate who raided the West Florida coast. Gasparilla is a big deal in Tampa, so the name is definitely steeped in local tradition. It has a snappy, footballish sound to it, too. I’d probably rank it higher if there weren’t so many pirate-themed names out there. Trivia: “buccaneer” derives from buccan, an Arawak word for the the wooden frame used to smoke meat.
11, San Diego Chargers
This is a great name, even if it’s not obvious what it means. The logo and mascot suggest something to do with electricity (some sort of battery, perhaps?), but a charger is also a medieval warhorse and a Dodge sedan. Charge is a great action verb for football, like ram. Apparently the team’s founder liked the name because it evoked soldiers charging after a bugle is sounded. If only it had something to do with San Diego …
10, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins tick a lot of boxes for me. But it’s possible the real reason I like the name is it allows the team to use a dolphin wearing a football helmet as their mascot. Which is awesome.
9, Baltimore Ravens
I’m sure plenty of market analysis went into picking this name when the team changed its identity after moving from Cleveland in 1996. But it was an inspired choice, to the extent that it’s a reference to Edgar Allan Poe, who lived and died in Baltimore, and his most famous poem. Will there ever be another NFL team named for 19th century literature? Nevermore.
8, Seattle Seahawks
The last of the flesh-ripping animals (and the fifth bird) on the list. A sea hawk is really an osprey, which would have been a fine choice, too, but it wouldn’t have the nice alliteration of Seattle Seahawks. It’s a good name: original and regionally specific. Bonus points for the great mascot (note to Chiefs: That’s how you do Native American imagery).
7, Cleveland Browns
Is there any team in sports with a less marketable name than the Browns? The team may or may not have been named after coach Paul Brown, but either way, they went confidently in the direction of dull, and haven’t looked back. So they get all sorts of credit from me for being original, historical and unconventional. Should the name be ranked even higher? Sorry, but it’s just too boring.
6, New Orleans Saints
Admittedly very un-footballish, but a fun, interesting, colorful name. It’s a tribute to “The Saints Go Marching In,” the unofficial anthem of New Orleans first popularized by Louis Armstrong. There’s no other name like it in sports (the Angels are closest, I guess). And it works great with the black-and-gold colors and the fleur-de-lis logo. Biggest downside: It turns into Aints a bit too easily.
5, Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings, a name which pays homage to the Scandanavians who migrated to Minnesota, are my favorite Team Named for a European Ethnic Group that Settled in Defined Areas of North America. (Other TNEEGS-DANAs include the Celtics and Knicks). The Vikings are particularly footballish if you focus on the blood-thirsty myth and ignore that most of them were farmers. (Trivia: there’s no evidence that Vikings wore horned helmets.)
4, San Francisco 49ers
We’re at the point in the list where you can make a case for any of these teams to be No. 1. The 49ers are a great name. Local, original and very unmarketable. The abbreviation “Niners” is good, too.
3, Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills are unique in major sports in that the name only makes sense with both the city and mascot together (the only other one like I can think of are the Macon Whoopee – get it? – a minor league hockey team, although I’m sure here are others). They’re also alone in using the name of the city as their mascot, and buffalo are big, shaggy, smelly, powerful animals, ie. perfect for football. Buffalo Bill Cody was from Iowa, and I don’t know if he ever visited Western New York (he got his nickname from slaughtering bison for the railroad) but the name works in just one city.
2, Green Bay Packers
Pretty much everything you want in a football team name. Original, regionally specific – named for the meat packing company that first sponsored them – and definitely footballish. There’s something hard working and honest about Packers- I picture guys in coveralls with blood stains on them – and it’s a pretty good verb, too. They would top this list if it weren’t for the …
1, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are the 1972 Dolphins of football names: perfect. Few cities’ identities were as linked to one industry as Pittsburgh’s was to steel manufacturing, and to have the team reflect that identity is the ultimate match of city and name. No other team could hope to use the name. Plus it just works so well for football. It’s synonymous with toughness and resiliency, lends itself to puns like “steel curtain” and, of course, is a perfect verb for football. Is it the best name in all of sports? It’s in the running.