The Cowboys seem to have landed a deep threat, but it’s TY Hilton, not Odell Beckham Jr.
“I can still run,” said the 33-year-old four-time Pro Bowler, who was signed by Dallas on Dec. 12. “If you think you’re going to come in there and hit a man-to-man press, and you’re not going to get away, you’re crazy.”
Hilton didn’t really consider the details that would play out with a no-name team during his early career catches. Indianapolis Colts. Who, after all, would bet on success on third-and-30, or on a pass that went longer than the quarterback? Dak Prescottdid the previous 2,136 completes have?
But so was Hilton’s game-saving 52-yarder on Saturday.
Already, the Cowboys can validate their decision to sign him.
“I’m really proud of him and really proud of our team,” said team owner and general manager Jerry Jones. “He allowed a dimension to this thing that opens up.”
The The Cowboys didn’t need Hilton to be an offensive Hail Mary game changer when he signed But they looked for a deep threat to stretch the field vertically, opening the playbook for coordinator Kellen Moore and demanding defensive attention to lighten the load on weapons, including No. 1 wide receiver. CeeDee the Lamb.
For weeks, Jones, the coaches and the players Odell Beckham Jr. they publicly believed he would be that guy. Beckham then visited on Dec. 5 and 6, refusing to elaborate on his readiness and recovery timeline from an ACL tear in February. When Hilton visited a week later, he ran the routes so easily that the Cowboys didn’t even ask him to finish the script. Hilton could help, they thought.
The teammates hope that he will continue to do so, as they expect him to threaten well in the playoffs.
“You keep trying to double it, I’ve got players outside,” he said Lamb has 1,207 yards and eight touchdowns this year “[Hilton is] very deceptive, his route-run. It is a smooth operator. He understands the game very well.
“Don’t let his size fool you; his speed will blind you.”
Andrew Luck: “The best I’ve ever played”
During a decade with the Colts, Hilton embraced his nickname “Ghost.” Like a ghost, he would disappear from a defender’s area if they didn’t see him quickly. Go-balls were a specialty.
Hilton caught 631 passes in Indianapolis for 9,691 yards and 53 touchdowns. He earned four Pro Bowl berths, developing a rare chemistry with 2012 teammate Andrew Luck. When Luck suddenly retired during the 2019 preseason, he gave a special shout out to Hilton.
“I probably had more fun than admitting football to TY,” Luck said. “When I was out in 2017, in the last half of the season, I had to figure out why I wanted to come back to play football. And I said I liked my friends and I liked throwing the football to TY Hilton.
“He’s the best footballer I’ve ever played with and he’s a better teammate than a footballer.”
Hilton played for the Colts last year as injuries limited his availability. While he didn’t sign with a team before training camp this year, Hilton says he was able to spend the fall with his sons, cheering on their football teams as they long ago cheered on his own. While there was a chance he continued to run the route, Hilton’s father and high school quarterback was thrown to him on the field inside the Colts’ practice facility.
In early December, Hilton said her agent started “getting a ton of calls.” He signed with the Cowboys on Dec. 12 and spent 10 hours a day hammering out the playbook. The team remained inactive against Jacksonville Jaguars the following Sunday, he preferred to train for another week even though he thought he was physically and mentally ready. Then he was on a pitch count Saturday against the Eagles, ultimately lining up 12 of 73 offensive snaps.
In two of those, he delivered momentum-building first downs.
The Cowboys’ defense opened the second quarter with a turnover, meaning Prescott and Co. were tasked with taking possession. But one trick backfired to the tune of a 10-yard sack of Prescott. Lamb’s two kicks got him going, but it wasn’t enough to make up for it.
The Cowboys, somewhat surprisingly, decided to go for it on fourth-and-8 from the Eagles’ 45-yard line.
Hilton ran an inside route before breaking outside, creating contact from the Eagles cornerback Darius Slay from his 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 into the end zone 36 yards for a touchdown—one of the Cowboys’ few leaders of the day.
Slay’s second and even bigger fumble came in the fourth quarter after two sacks left the Cowboys on third-and-30. Again, the Cowboys needed a savior. Again, Moore endorsed an aggressive game while still telling Prescott to “be smart.”
McCarthy hit the headset for a play that would have been worth two runs. “If we get a runner,” the coach told Prescott, “make the throw.” Hilton knew it would take off.
Hilton began to gain ground on Slay, who would later regret keeping his eyes on the backfield instead of respecting the 33-year-old veteran’s options. Hilton said he didn’t need to get into his fastest gear because the ball was “on the money.” Hilton credits Prescott’s kicking, which has averaged 61.2 yards in the air, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. And to tie the game again at 34, the Cowboys – and soon, walk away with the NFC East victory – drove as close as 52 yards.
“He launched it,” Hilton said of Prescott’s ball. “I mean, I told you, if you all think I can’t run, that’s on you. I told you all week, last week. It’s not my problem.”
Prescott’s takeaway: “Third and 30, find TY”
What Hilton already brings to the Cowboys
The Cowboys return to the field on a short week with a Thursday night visit Tennessee Titans, an AFC South team, Hilton played 18 times as a division-rival Colt. Fourteen of those were victories, Hilton had 71 catches for 1,078 yards and six touchdowns in the series.
That knowledge is just one advantage of a veteran receiver joining an otherwise young corps. Hilton spoke to the corner Trevon Diggs last week on Eagles concepts, Philadelphia coach Nick Sirianni spent three years as Hilton’s offensive coordinator in Indianapolis.
Hilton is now guiding Lamb through the details of the routes that Colts receivers coach Reggie Wayne taught Hilton.
“Help him run his route, get open, a little bit of separation to help him transition from a contested catch to uncontested and help build his yards after the catch,” Hilton said. “On his touch, we had that similar play call in practice and I said, ‘Aid a little higher. It’s easier to adjust back than it is to adjust back.’
“He made that adjustment and was able to score.”
The Cowboys’ chances of catching the Eagles are slim, and Dallas needs two wins. and Philadelphia has lost two to close the season. The fifth seed in the Cowboys’ NFC playoff bracket would likely allow them to travel for postseason games. But they would also open against the NFC South champion, where each team is currently under .500.
With a dip in defensive reliability in December, the Cowboys’ potent offense continues to bear the brunt of those results. And Dallas’ passing game will play a big role in any run they can make.
Hilton quickly beat Beckham Jr. just a month ago. Cowboys players wanted a playmaker and knew they wanted to load up on talent before the postseason with Beckham Jr. Cowboys player confidence.
It looks like they’ve found the threat they were looking for, albeit with a different jersey name than they were expecting.
The Cowboys are excited. Hilton is also the Colts’ longtime quarterback.
“(Luck) texted me after the game and said, ‘Man, I’m so proud,'” Hilton said. “‘I’m so glad to see you playing outside.” Because he always wanted to come back and play.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein
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