Super Bowl Week! For true fans, it's a wonderful time of hype, odds-making, and expert analysis of the X's and O's. "More," yells Morty at his TV. But for those less bedazzled by America's biggest spectacular, all the inside football stuff about "cover two" and "skinny posts" can be overwhelming or, gasp, boring. If those folks want more information, the basics are in order.
“Morty,” asks his wife Susan, “what’s a Packer? And is a Steeler a thief who can’t spell?”
So for all the Susans out there, or even the curious, here’s a lesson from NFL 101 on team names.
Packers. In 1919, Curly Lambeau and George Calhoun formed a professional football team in Green Bay, Wis., an industrial city then home to the Indian Packing Company. Lambeau worked for the meat canning firm, which donated money for uniforms and offered a practice field. The name “Packers” flowed naturally from that connection.
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The larger Acme Packing Company acquired Indian in 1921, and that year the firm gained a franchise for the Packers in the year-old American Professional Football Association (APFA). The group renamed itself the National Football League (NFL) in 1922.
Twenty other teams started the 1921 APFA season with the Packers, and their names reflected the era’s naming conventions. The Chicago Staleys had been the Decatur (Ill.) Staleys the year before, and were named after their initial sponsor, the A. E. Staley Company, a corn processor and starch manufacturer. An early naming-rights deal, if you will. For the 1921 season, George Halas bought the team, moved it to Chicago, and partially followed another practice of the time — naming the team after the local professional baseball team. He strayed a bit, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, by going with Bears instead of Cubs because pro footballers were bigger than baseball players.
Among others, the 1921 APFA lineup included the Canton Bulldogs, which hued to another common naming trend — strong animals; the Dayton Triangles, named for three industrial companies in Dayton; the Washington Senators and Cleveland Indians — baseball names again; and the Rochester Jeffersons, named after their field location.
The Chicago Racine Cardinals played that year and became a crosstown rival of the Bears. In 1898, players formed the club in the Racine Avenue neighborhood of the South Side. According to legend, towner Chris O’Brien bought used uniforms from the University of Chicago in 1901. When chided about the faded maroon color, O’Brien declared, “That’s not maroon, it’s Cardinal red!” Thus named, the Cardinals have enjoyed a hearty history since, which includes a move to St Louis in 1960, and again to Phoenix in 1988.
Steelers. The NFL granted a franchise to Pittsburgh in 1933, and owner Art Rooney named the team the Pirates to match the baseball club. He changed the name to Steelers in 1940 to reflect Pittsburgh’s dominant industry.
The ties between Big Steel and the team strengthened in the early 1960s. The team added a logo of three diamond shapes to one side of their helmets. The pattern — the “Steelmark” — had been a logo of U.S. Steel, and the company had transferred the trademark to the American Iron and Steel Institute, an industry association. Originally, the word “Steel” flanked the three shapes, but Rooney arranged for the Institute to modify it to Steelers.
The names of today’s NFL teams fall into several categories: threatening or powerful animals; terms that reflect a city’s culture or traditions, names of people or groups of people, baseball clubs, and a few marked “Other.”
Nine teams have opted for vigorous animals — Bengals, Broncos, Eagles, Falcons, Jaguars, Lions, Panthers, Rams and Seahawks. The Cardinals don’t fit that mold, but honor a color rather than a backyard worm-puller. Lastly, for the generation raised on TV’s Flipper, the Dolphins are an uneasy fit. Predictably, Arizona and Miami have toughened up renderings of their animals in order to fit the NFL’s violent culture. The Cardinal has a “peck-your-eyes-out” glare, while the Dolphin sports a snarl under its helmet.
Eleven clubs carry names associated with their home’s character. In addition to the Steelers and Packers, there are the Cowboys, 49ers (1849 gold rush), Patriots and Vikings (Minnesota’s Scandinavian heritage). The Saints draw from a long-time New Orleans jazz favorite — “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and the Ravens honor Baltimore poet Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” first published in 1845.