The modern NFL is made up of 32 teams — the result of decades of expansions and contractions. The most recent addition, the Houston Texans in 2002, seems to be the end of any big changes for now. But what of the humble beginnings of the NFL?
Often, the legend is told of eight original teams. They did the hard work of setting the stage for what the NFL would become. Some of these teams, like the Green Bay Packers, still play in the same place today. But the truth is more complex.
The original eight teams weren’t the sole founders of what became the NFL
The Pro Football Hall of Fame reports that the NFL started on September 17, 1920 — and it wasn’t yet known as the NFL. Then called the American Professional Football Conference, the Canton, Ohio, location remains a sacred place for football today. Nascent regional leagues formed around the game of gridiron football for years by this point. But this was the first functional, national attempt.
But it didn’t start with just eight teams; it started with 14 teams, although the unstable nature of this semi-pro league meant just four of those finished the entire 1920 schedule. Membership fluctuated heavily, ballooning up to 22 teams in 1926, then falling to 12 the next year. Some of these fleeting organizations disappeared into near-total obscurity. But several became the backbone of what eventually became America’s top sport.
How the original eight teams achieved their status in NFL history
As the Pro Football Hall of Fame reports, the 1932 season was when the NFL we know truly came to be. Eight active teams existed at this point: the Chicago Bears, Chicago Cardinals (today’s Arizona Cardinals), Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, Boston Braves (today’s Washington Football Team), Portsmouth Spartans (today’s Detroit Lions, Staten Island Stapletons, and Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Packers are the only team that still plays right where they started. The Bears were once known as the Decatur Staleys and played downstate. The first championship game — which was also the first televised football game ever — came about as something of a fluke. The nascent NFL had no plans to hold anything resembling a postseason game.
The Bears and Spartans had identical records, though, forcing a one-game playoff to decide the true winner of the season. With the now-legendary Wrigley Field snowed in, the game was forced into a smaller Chicago Stadium. The Bears won the game 9-0 and inspired the league to make the playoffs a permanent addition.
The AFL-NFL merger became the true start of the league of today
The original eight teams of the NFL sometimes play second fiddle to the other set of eight crucial football teams from a different area. As The Game Before the Money reports, the original AFC lineup in 1960 also happened to be eight teams. And these names will be even more familiar than the now-ancient history of the original NFL.
The Dallas Texans (now the Dallas Cowboys), Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans), Los Angeles Chargers, Buffalo Bills, the Titans of New York (known now as the New York Jets), Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders (now in Las Vegas), and Boston Patriots (rebranded to be New England’s regional team) made up the original AFC charter. The new league was widely ridiculed, due to the dominance of the NFL. It turned out to be a major success that attracted the NFL leadership for a merger.
Talks started in 1966 and played out over the next four years. Once merged, the NFL began a path toward the dominance of American sports fan mindshare. There have been some new teams, renamed teams, and minor adjustments since. But it was this moment when the NFL undoubtedly took the form it is known for today.