“I can still run,” said the 33-year-old four-time Pro Bowler, whom Dallas signed on Dec. 12. “If you think you’re just going to go up there and play man-to-man pressure, and not get run over, you’re crazy.”
Hilton did not have in mind the details that would ultimately materialize in the first sack of his career with a team not called the Indianapolis Colts. Who, after all, would have gambled on success against third-and-30, or a pass that traveled farther than the quarterback? dak prescott‘s previous 2,136 endings had?
But such was Hilton’s game-saving 52-yard drive on Saturday.
The Cowboys can now validate their decision to sign him.
“I’m very proud of him and proud of our team as well,” said team owner and general manager Jerry Jones. “It allowed a dimension to this thing that just opens it up.”
The The Cowboys didn’t need Hilton to be their Hail Mary offensive game changer when he signed. But they looked for a deep threat that could stretch the field vertically, opening up the playbook for coordinator Kellen Moore and demanding defensive attention to lighten the load on weapons, including No. 1 wide receiver. Cee Dee Lamb.
For weeks, Jones, coaches and players have publicly expressed their belief that Odell Beckham Jr. would be that guy. Beckham then visited on December 5 and 6 and refused to exercise in a revealing move about his preparation and recovery timeline from an ACL tear in February. When Hilton visited a week later, he ran the routes so well the Cowboys didn’t even ask him to finish the script. Hilton could help, they thought.
Teammates are hoping it continues as they expect to threaten well into the playoffs.
“You keep trying to double me, I’ve got playmakers outside,” he said. Lamb, who has 1,207 yards and eight touchdowns this year. “[Hilton is] very misleading, its execution path. He is a good operator. He understands the game very well.
“Don’t let its size fool you, its speed will surprise you.”
Andrew Luck: ‘The best I’ve ever played with’
In a decade with the Colts, Hilton adopted his “Ghost” nickname. As a ghost, he would disappear from a defender’s zone if they didn’t look quickly. The go-balls were a specialty.
Hilton caught 631 passes at Indianapolis, racking up 9,691 yards and 53 touchdowns. He earned four Pro Bowl berths, developing rare chemistry with his 2012 draft classmate Andrew Luck. When Luck suddenly retired during the 2019 preseason, he gave Hilton special recognition.
“I had more fun throwing the ball to TY than should be allowed, probably,” luck said. “When I was out in 2017, for the second half of the season, I had to figure out why I wanted to play football again. And I just boiled it down to the fact that I liked my friends and I loved throwing the ball to TY Hilton.
“He’s the best soccer player I’ve ever played with and he’s a better teammate than soccer player.”
Hilton played for the Colts until last year as injuries limited his availability. When he didn’t sign with a team before training camp this year, Hilton says he opted to spend the fall with his sons, cheering on their football teams as they had for a long time. He kept running routes should an opportunity present itself, Hilton’s father and high school quarterback throwing to him in the infield of the Colts’ training camp facility.
In early December, Hilton said her agent started “getting a lot of calls.” He signed with the Cowboys on Dec. 12 and spent 10-hour days hammering out the playbook. The team kept him inactive against the Jacksonville Jaguars the following Sunday, preferring to practice another week even though he believed he was physically and mentally ready. He then went on a pitch count Saturday against the Eagles, ultimately going 12-for-73 on offense.
In two of those, he delivered first downs that built momentum.
The Cowboys defense had opened the second quarter with a steal, which meant Prescott and company were tasked with capitalizing on possession. But a trick play failed with a 10-yard sack by Prescott. Two subsequent pitches to Lamb generated forward progress, but not enough to make up for it.
The Cowboys surprisingly decided to go for it on fourth and 8 from the Eagles 45-yard line.
Hilton ran an inside route before going out, drawing contact from the Eagles cornerback dario kill along your way. Slay was called for illegal contact, and the Cowboys gained 5 yards and, more importantly, a first down.
Three plays later, Prescott found Lamb deep on a corner route. Lamb spinning towards the end zone for a 36-yard go-ahead touchdown run, one of the Cowboys’ rare leads of the day.
Slay’s second, and even bigger, moment came in the fourth quarter after two sacks left the Cowboys facing third and 30. Again, the Cowboys needed a savior. Once again, Moore approved of an aggressive play while telling Prescott to still “be smart about it.”
McCarthy chimed in on the headset for a play that would call for two routes. “If we can get a running back,” the head coach told Prescott, “take the shot.” Hilton knew he would walk away.
Hilton began to gain ground on Slay, who would later regret keeping his eyes on the backfield instead of respecting the 33-year-old’s chances. Hilton said he didn’t even need to reach his top gear since the ball “was on the money.” Hilton credits the throw to Prescott, who traveled for a career-high 61.2 passing yards, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. And the Cowboys’ chance to tie the game again at 34, and soon, pulling away with the NFC East victory, came within 52 yards.
“He threw it,” Hilton said of Prescott’s ball. “I mean, I told everyone: if you think I can’t run, it’s your fault. I told him all week, the week before that. Not my problem.”
Prescott’s Takeout: “Third and 30, Find TY”
What Hilton is already bringing to the Cowboys
The Cowboys retake the field in a short week with a Thursday night visit to tennessee titans, an AFC South team that Hilton played with 18 times as division rival Colt. Fourteen of those were wins, with Hilton racking up 71 catches for 1,078 yards and six touchdowns in the series.
Such familiarity is just one of the benefits of a veteran catcher joining a young corps. Hilton consulted with the cornerback Trevon Diggs Last week on Eagles concepts, Philadelphia head coach Nick Sirianni spent three years as Hilton’s offensive coordinator in Indianapolis.
Hilton is also walking Lamb through the route details that now-Colts receivers coach Reggie Wayne once taught Hilton.
“Just help him with his road run, getting wide, a little bit of separation to help him go from a contested reception to an uncontested one and build his yards after the catch,” Hilton said. “On his touchdown, we had that similar play in practice and I said, ‘Aim a little higher. It’s easier to adjust down than to adjust up.’
“He made that adjustment and was able to score.”
The Cowboys’ chances of catching the Eagles for a division title are slim and require two wins in Dallas. Y two Philadelphia losses to close out the season. The Cowboys’ likely fifth seed in the NFC playoff bracket would leave them traveling for postseason games. But they would also start against the champion of the NFC South, in which every team is currently under .500.
With a drop in defensive reliability through December, the Cowboys’ potent offense continues to take a bigger toll on those results. And Dallas’ passing game will be a big factor in any run they can make.
Hilton has quickly earned the trust of his teammates who were overdrafting Beckham Jr. players just a month ago. The Cowboys knew they wanted a playmaker and they knew they wanted to amass talent before the postseason.
Looks like they found the threat they wanted, albeit with a different jersey name on the back than they expected.
The cowboys are excited. Hilton’s longtime Colts quarterback is, too.
“(Luck) actually texted me after the game and said, ‘Man, I’m so proud,’” Hilton said. “’I’m so happy to see you playing again.’ Because he always wanted me to play again.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @joriepstein