The Super Bowl of NFL Branding

We’ll leave the men to settle who’s the strongest, the toughest, and the fastest on Sunday, and find out which NFL brand leads the league in design.

This Sunday we’ll all gather around our televisions for the biggest game in American sports–the Super Bowl. And while either the Steelers or Packers will be crowned the best team, there’s another competition that won’t end with that. You see, NFL franchises are more than just sports teams, they’re multi-million-dollar brands. So we’ll leave the men to settle who’s strongest, toughest, and fastest on Sunday, and look instead at these brands from a design perspective. They are, after all, more than just themes for sports teams, they’re identities that are a part of our visual environment year-round.

A bit on methodology: All 32 teams have been ranked on the basis of concept, execution, and appliction. These scores are weighted, with concept (the theme or idea behind the team) being worth 25 points, execution (the logo, colors, and branding) being worth 50 points, and application (the uniform) being worth another 25 points. It’s insightful to look at the brands this way. You’ll discover that though it can occasionally be overcome by great execution, a bad concept more than likely dooms you from the start. Begin with a clear and approachable concept, and creating a good design is easy. Begin with a vague and impersonal concept and it’s likely that no amount of polishing will help.

So without further delay, let’s dive right in.

The Regular Season
AFC EAST
New England Patriots

81
(13-3)

88% Concept
86% Execution
64% Application

The Patriots pull off a concept that’s incredibly broad without falling victim to vagueness. And the logo does a spectacular job of integrating elements of the US flag with the face of a revolutionary war soldier. The deep, mature blue and the greys used on uniforms and other applications work well to keep the Patriots looking like tough footballers instead of convention delegates. The script logo font, however, doesn’t match the refinement of the mark and looks more appropriate for baseball.

New York Jets

60
(10-6)

64% Concept
54% Execution
68% Application

The Jets take an impersonal and mediocre concept and really fly with it. While their current logo–a throwback from 1967–has some nice typography, it’s far too cluttered and random to have any serious impact. And its overall oval form creates problems with application, making it look more like a cheap sticker than the centerpiece of any real branding system.

Miami Dolphins

56
(9-7)

68% Concept
62% Execution
32% Application

In a league of tough and intimidating brands, the Dolphins win cutest team by a mile. And while it’s not a great concept, they at least score points for owning it–using bright, beachy colors and a goofy dolphin that looks rather peeved about the helmet. Their uniforms, however, are beyond atrocious, using unecessary striping, numerals that don’t belong, and fabric that looks like a bridesmaid’s dress.

Buffalo Bills

42
(7-9)

76% Concept
34% Execution
24% Application

So what if ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody has absolutely nothing to do with Buffalo, New York? The Buffalo Bills’ subtle wordplay makes for a fun and playful concept–and with a mean ol’ Buffalo no less. But man cannot live on concept alone, and the Bills’ look is tired, man. Their current branding was introduced in 1974, and from the looks of it hasn’t been updated at all since then. At best it’s very ’80s, and recent attempts to add ‘midnight blue’ into the mix have made things even worse.

AFC NORTH
Pittsburgh Steelers

85
(14-2)

92% Concept
84% Execution
80% Application

The Steelers are one of the best marriages of concept with locale in all of sports. Not only do they reference Pittsburgh’s manufacturing heritage, they co-opt the steel logo as well. The logo itself is playful and unique, and the pairing of yellow and black is always vibrant. The Steelers do a great job of matching classic with modern–from the matte bowling ball helmet and assymetrical logo to the bold, modern numerals. But do lose the stenciled logo text.

Baltimore Ravens

84
(13-3)

92% Concept
78% Execution
88% Application

Though ‘Ravens’ is a little goth for the NFL, it fits the mood of Baltimore quite well. And the Poe reference is a great tie-in. The current logo is an improvement over the original shield logo, though the raven looks more rude than intimidating. But the deep purple and black palette and uniform application are where the Ravens really shine. The uniforms preserve large, bold areas of low contrast so that the logo and the custom numerals really pop.

Cincinnati Bengals

66
(11-5)

80% Concept
84% Execution
16% Application

What better name than the ‘Bungles’ for a team that’s only posted a winning record in 2 of the past 20 seasons? But fortunately we’re not here for football and its in design execution that the Bengals really excel. The bold, striped capital is a truly elegant solution to the big cat problem that proves disasterous to so many teams. But a little tiger-striping goes a long way and the Bengals are definitely in need of a lesson in moderation. You look like a bunch of Tiggers out there, guys.

Cleveland Browns

17
(3-13)

12% Concept
16% Execution
24% Application

Let me get this straight. You named yourself after an old white guy whose name was ‘Brown.’ And your logo is a helmet… that’s orange?

Nope, I really can’t help you. Sorry.

AFC SOUTH
Indianapolis Colts

77
(12-4)

72% Concept
82% Execution
72% Application

While their name sounds more adorable than tough, the Colts get a pass on account of their Baltimore roots. And on account of doing most everthing else right: a simple, direct, and as a result timeless logo; a great blue that manages to feel both rich with heritage and new with life; and a good uniform adaptation (with the exception of the stripes, which I’d love to see gone). But please, for humanity’s sake stop using that wild west font.

Jacksonville Jaguars

69
(11-5)

64% Concept
82% Execution
84% Application

Once a big, scary cat, the threat of lawsuits from Ford (owner of the Jaguar auto brand) has left Jacksonville with more of a mounted head than an intimidating beast. Decapitation aside, it’s actually a pretty good form, and the vibrant and unique color scheme gives the Jags a personality of their own. There’s something to be said for simplicity though, and the jelly-bean spots not only add unnecessary visual clutter, they make it feel less like a sleek cat and more like a bad pimp coat.

Tenessee Titans

54
(9-7)

72% Concept
32% Execution
80% Application

A concept like ‘the Titans’ creates some obvious problems: how to make it personable, how to create a logo from it, and how to make it something that fans will identify with. Unfortunately, the Titans try to solve this these complex prolems by throwing the kitchen sink at them. There’s a sword, a few stars, some flames, and a giant ‘T.’ Seriously, pick a theme here. But they do manage a unique color scheme and uniforms that despite the logo elements are among the best in the NFL.

Houston Texans

44
(7-9)

36% Concept
32% Execution
76% Application

The Houston ‘Texans’? Really? In a state as culturally rich as Texas that’s the best you could do? It’s pretty easy to see how this is a concept that fails from the start, so let’s see if we can summarize all of their faults in one headline: hollow, generic concept that’s hard to personify ends up trying to straddle the line between two established locals (the star from the Cowboys and the steer from the Longhorns) and ends up as a well-designed nothing.

AFC WEST
Denver Broncos

82
(13-3)

84% Concept
64% Execution
92% Application

I’ll deduct a few points for yet another Ford plagiarism (the Mustang), but the overall Broncos identity is a great one. They start with a clear concept that relates well to their frontier state heritage, add two colors that clash rather nicely, and top it off with a logo that’s perfectly stylized to look fast and fierce without appearing decapitated. And not a single use of wild west font! The Broncos also have great, modern uniforms with large accent areas that stretch from the jersey to the knee.

San Diego Chargers

74
(12-4)

68% Concept
84% Execution
64% Application

The Chargers make the best of a vague and impersonal concept–saved by a logo that’s literally electrifying and a vivid color scheme that relates well to San Diego’s ever-sunny climate without getting hokey with it. The lightning bolt logo is an elegant and simple solution to the conceptual problems that ‘Chargers’ presents, conveying power and quickness in a way that looks like it would hurt. And with a few simplifications, their uniforms would be among the league’s best.

Oakland Raiders

73
(12-4)

100% Concept
16% Execution
64% Application

The Raiders win for most intimidating name in the NFL, if not in all of professional sports. And they make up for a lack of elegance in design with a logo that’s genuinely badass. Guy in a patch wearing an old-style helmet? Yes! Swords? Double yes! And while I’d suggest a few slight modifications in its geometry, their logo is timeless and any attempt to rebrand the Raiders would be a disaster. On the field, their monochrome uniforms look like a prison team–perfect for a city in the shadow of Alcatraz.

Kansas City Chiefs

61
(10-6)

68% Concept
72% Execution
32% Application

There’s been plenty of public debate in recent years over use of Native-American themes, and in my mind the tiptoe-around lies in using a certain vagueness in the imagery. The Chiefs do a good job of staying on the right side of that line with their simple arrowhead logo. While props go to the Chiefs owner for reportedly sketching this logo on a napkin in the early ’60s, it could stand to be modernized. Lose the text shadowing, for starters. Oh, and those hideous uniforms have got to go.

NFC EAST
Philadelphia Eagles

82
(13-3)

96% Concept
76% Execution
80% Application

What better way to reference your city as the birthplace of America than with the quintessential American symbol? And it’s a fierce bird of prey too? Double-score! The Eagles do so much right: their logo is aggressive without being overstylized; their uniforms are simple and bold; and their midnight green is one of the league’s best colors. They do overdo it with the the full text logo, which is far too angular. And the helmet wings need to go down and back a bit. It looks like flying eyebrows as it is.

Dallas Cowboys

79
(13-3)

100% Concept
76% Execution
64% Application

I can’t think of a more natural theme for a team from Dallas than ‘the Cowboys.’ And their logo is as good as it gets, using a bold and simple visual metaphor instead of getting weighed down with being literal. Though one could argue for its appropriateness in this case, the Cowboys’ use of a clumsy, wild west font waters down what is otherwise an incredibly elegant identity. On the field, their reliance on stripes and incorporation of an out-of-place silvery-teal further dilute it.

New York Giants

60
(10-6)

88% Concept
52% Execution
48% Application

The Giants could learn a lot from the Chargers about rescuing a vague concept using crafty symbolism. While ‘the Giants’ is not a bad name for a team from the world’s most important city, it does present some giant hurdles in execution. And though their current logo is actually a very good logo–using playful, rhythmic text and a refined simplicity to create a bold mark–it’s not a good NFL logo. Couple that with a generic red-while-and-blue scheme and the Giants are just boring.

Washington Redskins

8
(1-15)

12% Concept
0% Execution
20% Application

As I mentioned with the Chiefs, ethnic sensitivities are a tricky thing. And an identity based on the skin color of an oppressed people simply does not make for a good concept in the modern era. Couple that with the NFL’s worst logo and most uninspired uniforms and you have a real loser. Literally everything is wrong–from the clip art image of a red-skinned man to the gross burgundy and yellow color combination. Seriously, Washington, just start over. From scratch.

NFC NORTH
Chicago Bears

78
(12-4)

88% Concept
76% Execution
72% Application

The Bears is another solid concept from the days before you had to be a ‘Devil Ray’ or ‘Raptor’ to make an impact. And though they undermine it at times by using a crude two-color bear head graphic, the Bears set an excellent example for creating a timeless visual identity. The bold, rich colors, the simple ‘C’ logo, and the enormous impact of the black-weight ‘Bears’ text create a visual identity that is rich in heritage without feeling like a throwback.

Green Bay Packers

60
(10-6)

72% Concept
66% Execution
36% Application

Like the Steelers, the Packers is a concept that looks inward, celebrating the region’s industrial power instead of relying on an outside theme. The obvious flaw in this is the challenge of making the rather gruesome meat-packing industry into something that’s palatable and marketable to an 8-year-old. Fortunately, there’s cheese. And fortunately for the Packers, their stale logo and hideous colors will forever be masked by their true brand–the fervent enthusiasm of their fans.

Detroit Lions

57
(9-7)

72% Concept
30% Execution
88% Application

The Lions represent another good-but-not-great theme in the big cats genre. Maybe it’s all that Mane-y hair, which seems a bit prissy for such a rough-and-tumble sport. And maybe I’m letting years of disappointment cloud my perception, but the overall execution just looks meek. Silver and ‘honolulu blue’? So cute. And that precious lion? Adorable. Even so, the logo text is actually quite good and the uniforms would be too if they weren’t so low-contrast.

Minnesota Vikings

55
(9-7)

36% Concept
30% Execution
88% Application

The Vikings concept does a great job of referencing Minnesota’s Scandinavian heritage and (however intentional) its climate as well. But the various incarnations of their identity that persist are largely embarassing. Their logo has been reused and abused by high school teams for decades, and the typography (both the modernized stencil and cartoony pseudo-blackletter) are atrocious. Their uniforms, however, are quite good, and their horned helmet is one of the NFL’s best.

NFC SOUTH
New Orleans Saints

87
(14-2)

100% Concept
88% Execution
72% Application

It’s hard to imagine a concept being more perfect and more complex than the Saints concept is for New Orleans. And with the elegant simplicity of the Fleur de Lis logo, the Saints nimbly tackle that complexity and turn it into a bold and distinct icon that represents the city itself as much as it does the team. I know I’m overanalyzing a simple sports team concept here, but the black and gold color scheme very artfully summarizes what is perhaps America’s most troubled and vibrant city.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

81
(13-3)

84% Concept
74% Execution
92% Application

While the Raiders identity works perfectly for a rough city like Oakland, the Bucs do a great job of reworking a similar concept in a way that’s more appropriate for a city in the heart of Florida’s tourist region. In 1997, the Bucs underwent a total brand overhaul that took the franchise out of the NFL’s basement and created a bold and unique look that’s still fresh over a decade later. The contrast between their dull copper and vibrant red is the centerpiece of one of the NFL’s best color schemes.

Carolina Panthers

67
(11-5)

88% Concept
64% Execution
72% Application

While the Panthers do a good job of making Carolina blue look reasonably intimidating, the rest of it is all wrong. I can’t decide if I’m supposed to be fearing the whiskers or that giant slab of neck. Oh wait, there are teeth? I hadn’t noticed. Yet another neutered beast that looks like it would be more at home hanging in a study than crushing bodies on the gridiron. And while I personally enjoy the ’80s skateboard graphic lettering, it’s rather out of place in the NFL.

Atlanta Falcons

55
(9-7)

84% Concept
30% Execution
76% Application

I actually love the Falcons concept. It’s a big bird with reasonably intimidating possibilities and it just feels great to say. That word–‘falcon’–just has a wonderful mouth-feel. But phonetics aside, the Falcons fall flat. The logo is passive, way overstyled, and has no visual focus. The color scheme manages to make three of the most vibrant colors look dull and uninteresting. And while the uniforms do what they can to make the best of a bad situation, they too ultimately fall flat.

NFC WEST
Seattle Seahawks

83
(13-3)

80% Concept
84% Execution
88% Application

The Seahawks do an incredible job of capturing the essence of the Pacific Northwest. From the logo, which expertly captures the culture and imagery of Pacfic Northwest natives, to the color scheme, which expertly captures the visual mood of a region with the fewest sunny days per year in the continental US, the Seahawks stand at the intersection of great concept and thoughtful execution. And that fluorescent green accent? Yeah, I’m a sucker for that.

St. Louis Rams

75
(12-4)

76% Concept
76% Execution
72% Application

What better theme for a sport of constant collision than ‘the Rams?’ And they do a decent job of creating a brand of it too. Their logo is strong and powerful without feeling mounted. And the logo text does a great job of mirroring the ram’s horns with the form of the ‘R.’ The colors are good but too low-contrast to be great. And while the ram helmet is a strong concept, some additional detail and adjustments in geometry are needed to make it truly successful. It might as well be a snail.

Arizona Cardinals

51
(8-8)

48% Concept
36% Execution
84% Application

The cardinal concept does give us something concrete to play with. Unfortunately it’s a songbird in a league of 300-lb men. And though the deep cardinal red is a great color, the cardinal logo is awful. It’s not fierce or fast or intimidating in the least. It just looks bitchy, like it’s sitting there complaining. While the logo and its helmet implementation leave a lot to be desired, the uniform is perhaps the lone bright spot, with large, bold color areas and not a single stripe.

San Francisco 49ers

25
(4-12)

40% Concept
10% Execution
40% Application

While we’ve seen a few other teams reference their residents directly, and mostly with success, the 49ers concept is one that presents a steep hill to climb from the start. In the modern era, how do you succinctly represent and personify a diverse group of people who converged on your city in search of gold over 150 years ago? Apparently, it’s with a belt buckle.

So we’ve established the best and worst branding in the NFL, but unfortunately a few teams near the top have identical records. That’s ok, because we all know the playoffs are where the real fun happens, so let’s indulge ourselves using the same system the NFL does.

Wild Card Round

Colts vs Ravens

This matchup pits classic and refined against modern and exciting. And while the Ravens score points for unique and intimidating uniforms, the timelessness and simplicity of the Colts pulls them through.

Colts win 28-17

Patriots vs Chargers

When two teams with great looks go head-to-head, unfortunately someone’s got to lose. And here, the Chargers’ electricity wins out against the Patriots, who look stiff by comparison.
Chargers win 48-45

Bears vs Buccaneers

This is another matchup of old-school versus new-school. And while they’re both great identities, one of them will look dated in 10 years while the other won’t. Bears win 17-7

Eagles vs Cowboys

On paper this matchup should go to the Cowboys. But a few clumsy elements keep them from being a sleek and refined brand. And putting them up against the Eagles’ aggressive, modern identity really shows those flaws. Eagles win 24-10

Divisional Round

Steelers vs Chargers

The Chargers have a better visual identity, but the Steelers make up for it with a strong cultural identity. The Chargers could be from anywhere, but the Steelers could only be from Pittsburgh.
Steelers win 28-27

Broncos vs Colts

It’s fitting that the NFL’s two horse themes go head-to-head. And though the Colts win for better mark, their dated uniforms and use of wild west font sink their hopes of moving on.
Broncos win 31-17

Saints vs Bears

It’s also fitting that two of the NFL’s most classic and refined marks go head-to-head. And this one’s definitely going into overtime. The Saints use voodoo to pull out a victory here.
Saints win 27-24 (OT)

Seahawks vs Eagles

Yet another great head-to-head matchup, this time it’s the NFL’s best birds. Both teams have excellent logos and color schemes, but the eagles are just more exciting by contrast.
Eagles win 31-21

Conference Championships

Steelers vs Broncos

The playoffs are all about matchups (here we call it contrast), and there’s a lot of contrast between the approaches of these two teams. While the Steelers score points for tradition, the Broncos come out on top as the better modern brand. Broncos win 31-27

Saints vs Eagles

Another high-contrast matchup with two totally different approaches. And though the Eagles have better uniforms and more exciting colors, the Saints manage to create a whole cultural identity with their brand. Saints win 14-10

So here it is, the biggest matchup in all of NFL branding…

THE SUPER BOWL

Saints vs Broncos

So this is it. These two teams have emerged as your top NFL brands. And by now we’ve covered them from every angle. But with all the pressure of the Super Bowl, the regular season stats are out the window and a single deciding factor emerges, sometimes from out of nowhere. And New Orleans has better food. Saints win 17-13

SAINTS WIN! SAINTS WIN! It was a long road, but the New Orleans Saints have emerged as the NFL’s best brand. Sure there’s room for improvement–I’d love to see some more imaginative typography, I’d love to see the forms of the Fleur de Lis incorporated into the uniform in place of the stripes, and I’d love to see the uniform numerals updated to something more modern–but in the end the Saints manage to be more than a great sports team brand, they’ve become a regional cultural identity. And perhaps the most culturally-ingrained brand in all of sports.

So, cajun friends, hopefully this soothes some of the pain from your first-round elimination this year. And I’ll take some jambalaya now, please.