Pro football, more than any of the other major sports, has a rich history of folklore that incudes many team and tandem nicknames. It was really hard cutting this list down to only ten, and some of the “honorable mention” names that didn’t make the list are well known ones, like Miami’s “No Name Defense”, the self-proclaimed Dallas Cowboys’ “America’s Team”, a current one – Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary, the “Big Blue Wrecking Crew” of the New York Giants of the Lawrence Taylor era, San Diego’s prolific “Air Coryell” offense, and the “Bull Elephant Backfield” of the 1950s Los Angeles Rams. Here are the ten that made the cut:
1. Purple People Eaters - this nickname is sometimes used to describe the entire 11-man unit of the dominant 1960s and ’70s Minnesota Vikings’ defensive units, but is really the nickname of the team’s front four, which included Gary Larsen, a pair of Hall of Famers in Alan Page and Carl Eller, and a Viking legend who belongs in Canton in Jim Marshall. The nickname stuck into the mid-70s, when Doug Sutherland replaced Larsen.
2. The Steel Curtain - this nickname was given to the dominant Pittsburgh Steeler defensive units of the 1970s that helped the franchise win four Super Bowls. Anchored by legends like Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, L.C. Greenwood, Jack Ham, Mel Blount and Donnie Shell, the Steelers dominated the decade under coach Chuck Noll with a hard-nosed in your face style of play.
3. Fearsome Foursome - the Los Angeles Rams’ front four of the 1960s earned this nickname. The line consisted of four hard-working players intent on getting after the quarterback – Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Rosey Grier and Lamar Lundy. Jones, in fact, pretty much invented the term “sack”, which is an official stat in pro football today. Grier was eventually replaced on the line by Roger Brown, but the unit kept the nickname throughout the decade.
4. Million Dollar Backfield – this unit, consisting of four Hall of Famers, was the San Francisco 49ers starting backfield of the 1950s. In an era when the running game dominated, this backfield included quarterback Y.A. Tittle and three running backs – Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson. Later in the decade, Tittle remained as the QB, but the trio of backs were replaced by J.D. Smith, R.C. Owens and C.R. Roberts and became known as the “All Alphabet Backfield”.
5. Doomsday Defense - this nickname was given to the swarming, dominant defense of coach Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys of the 1960s and ’70s. The nickname stuck with two different Dallas defensive units – the 1960s version featuring players like Chuck Howley, Bob Lilly, Jethro Pugh, Lee Roy Jordan, Cornell Green and Mel Renfro, and a later 1970s club that included Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Randy White, Harvey Martin, Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters. Both versions produced Super Bowl titles for Landry.
6. The Electric Company – the Buffalo Bills’ offensive line of the 1970s that opened holes for O.J. Simpson was tagged with this nickname, as they “turned on The Juice”. They were responsible for Simpson breaking the 2,000 yard barrier in 1973, breaking Jim Brown’s single season rushing yardage record. The unit included center Mike Montler, guards Reggie McKenzie and Joe DeLamielleure, tackles Dave Foley and Donnie Green and tight end Paul Seymour.
7. Greatest Show on Turf – guided by former Arena League quarterback Kurt Warner, the 1999 St. Louis Rams developed into an explosive offensive unit that surprisingly won the Super Bowl and earned this nickname. The team remained an offensive powerhouse the following 2 seasons also, as offensive coordinator Mike Martz was promoted to head coach. Stars of those teams included not only Warner but Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Az Hakim and Ricky Proehl.
8. Monsters of The Midway – like Dallas’ “America’s Team” handle, this nickname is used to signify any and all Chicago Bear teams. It was especially fitting for coach George Halas’s championship clubs in the early years, and definitely fit the 1985 championship “Super Bowl Shuffle” Bears’ team coached by Mike Ditka, who along with rugged legends like Dick Butkus, Doug Atkins, Joe Fortunato, Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher embodied the Bears’ style of play.
9. Orange Crush – this nickname was coined by a Denver sportswriter for the 1970s Bronco defense, specifically the 1977 club that reached the Super Bowl. Defensive coordinator Joel Collier, one of the game’s top defensive minds of all time, installed a 3-4 defense that made stars of players like Tom Jackson, Randy Gradishar, Paul Smith, Lyle Alzado, Steve Foley, Rubin Carter and Barney Chavous.
10. The Over The Hill Gang – Washington Redskins’ coach George Allen had a soft spot for veteran players, and despised having to use rookies due to their penchant for making mistakes. When he built the early 1970s Washington teams, he loaded the roster with veteran retreads like Ron McDole, Myron Pottios, Bill Kilmer, Richie Petitbon, Maxie Baughan, Jack Pardee, Verlon Biggs, Roy Jefferson and Boyd Dowler. When the team started to play well and win games, they were given this nickname. Allen even guided the crusty veteran team into the 1972 Super Bowl, where they lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins.