FRISCO, Texas — Four days before his Dallas Cowboys debut, TY Hilton stood at his new locker and shared a bold proclamation.
“I can still run,” the 33-year-old four-time Pro Bowler, whom Dallas signed Dec. 12, he said. “If you think you’re just gonna come up there and play press man-to-man, and not get run by, you’re crazy.”
Hilton didn’t quite have in mind the details that would ultimately materialize in his first career catch with a team not named the Indianapolis Colts. Who, after all, would have bet on success facing third-and-30, or a pass that traveled longer than quarterback Dak Prescott’s previous 2,136 completions had?
But such was Hilton’s 52-yard, game-saving haul Saturday.
Already, the Cowboys can validate their decision to sign him.
“I’m really proud of him and proud of our team, too,” team owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “He allowed a dimension to this thing that just opens it up.”
The Cowboys didn’t need Hilton to be their Hail Mary offensive game-changer when he signed. But they sought a deep threat who 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 CeeDee Lamb.
For weeks, Jones, coaches and players had publicly expressed belief Odell Beckham Jr. would be that guy. Then Beckham visited Dec. 5 and 6, declining to work out in a telling move about his readiness and recovery timeline from a February ACL tear. When Hilton visited a week later, he ran routes so smoothly the Cowboys didn’t even require him to finish the script. Hilton could help, they figured.
Even on a coach-dictated pitch count Saturday in the Cowboys’ 40-34 win vs. the Philadelphia Eagles, he did.
Teammates expect him to continue as they hope to threaten well into the playoffs.
“You keep trying to double me, I’ve got playmakers on the outside,” said Lamb, who has 1,207 yards and eight touchdowns this year. “[Hilton is] very deceptive, his route-running. He’s a smooth operator. He understands the game very well.
“Don’t let his size fool you — his speed will sneak up on you.”
Andrew Luck: ‘Best I’ve ever played with’
In a decade with the Colts, Hilton embraced his “Ghost” nickname. Like a ghost, he would disappear from a defender’s zone if they didn’t watch quickly. Go-balls were a specialty.
Hilton caught 631 passes in Indianapolis, amassing 9,691 yards and 53 touchdowns. He earned four Pro Bowl berths, developing rare chemistry with fellow 2012 draft classmate Andrew Luck. When Luck retired suddenly during the 2019 preseason, he gave a special shoutout to Hilton.
“I had more fun throwing the football to TY than should be allowed, probably,” Luck said. “When I was away in 2017, for the latter half of the season, I had to figure out why I wanted to come back to play football. And I boiled it down to the fact that I liked my friends and I loved throwing the football to TY Hilton.
“He’s the best football player I’ve ever played with and he’s a better teammate than he is a football player.”
Hilton played for the Colts through 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 long cheered on his. He kept running routes in case an opportunity called, Hilton’s father and high school quarterback throwing to him on the indoor field of the Colts’ training camp facility.
In early December, Hilton said his agent started “getting a bunch of calls.” He signed with the Cowboys on Dec. 12 and spent 10 hours a day hammering the playbook. The team kept him inactive against the Jacksonville Jaguars the following Sunday, preferring him to practice another week even as he believed he was physically and mentally ready. He was then on a pitch count Saturday vs. the Eagles, ultimately lining up on 12 of 73 offensive snaps.
On two of those, he delivered momentum-generating first downs.
The Cowboys defense had opened the second quarter with a takeaway, meaning Prescott and Co. were then tasked with capitalizing on the possession. But a trick play backfired to the tune of a 10-yard sack of Prescott. Two subsequent throws to Lamb netted forward progress but not enough to compensate.
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, drawing contact from Eagles cornerback Darius Slay along his path. 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 for a 36-yard, go-ahead touchdown — one of the Cowboys’ rare leads of the day.
Slay’s second, and even bigger, slip-up arrived in the fourth quarter after two sacks left the Cowboys facing third-and-30. Again, the Cowboys needed a savior. Again, Moore approved an aggressive play call while telling Prescott to still “be smart with it.”
McCarthy chimed into the headset for a play that would merit two go routes. “If we can get a runner,” the head coach told Prescott, “take the shot.” Hilton knew he’d take off.
Hilton began gaining ground on Slay, who would later regret keeping his eyes on the backfield rather than respecting the 33-year-old veteran’s chances. Hilton said he didn’t even need to reach his fastest gear since the ball “was on the money.” Hilton credits Prescott’s throw, which traveled a career-high 61.2 air yards, per NFL Next Gen Stats. And the Cowboys’ chance to re-tie the game at 34 — and soon, pull away with the NFC East victory — drew 52 yards closer.
“He launched it,” Hilton said of Prescott’s ball. “I mean, I told y’all: If y’all think I can’t run, that’s on you. I told y’all all week, the week before that. Not my problem.”
Prescott’s takeaway: “Third-and-30, find TY”
What Hilton is already bringing to the Cowboys
The Cowboys retake the field on a short week with a Thursday night visit to the Tennessee Titans, an AFC South team whom Hilton played 18 times as a division-rival Colt. Fourteen of those were victories, with Hilton hauling in 71 catches for 1,078 yards and six touchdowns in the series.
Such familiarity is just one benefit of a veteran receiver joining an otherwise young corps. Hilton conferred with cornerback Trevon Diggs last week about Eagles concepts, Philadelphia head coach Nick Sirianni spending three years as Hilton’s offensive coordinator in Indianapolis.
Hilton is guiding Lamb, too, on route-running details that now-Colts receivers coach Reggie Wayne once taught Hilton.
“Just help him with his route-running, getting open, the little bit of separation to help him make it from a contested catch to not contested and build up his yards after the catch,” Hilton said. “On his touchdown, we had that similar play call in practice and I told him, ‘Aim a little higher. It’s easier to adjust back down than it is to adjust back up.’
“He did that adjustment and he was able to score.”
The Cowboys’ chances of catching the Eagles for a division title are slim, requiring two Dallas wins and two Philadelphia losses to close the season. The Cowboys’ likely fifth seed in the NFC playoff bracket would leave them traveling for postseason games. But they would also open against the champion of the NFC South, in which every team is currently under .500.
With a dip in defensive reliability through December, the Cowboys’ potent offense continues to carry a bigger load in those outcomes. And Dallas’ passing game will factor heavily into any run they can make.
Hilton has quickly earned the trust of teammates who just one month ago were excessively recruiting Beckham Jr. Cowboys players knew they wanted a playmaker and knew they wanted to load up on talent before the postseason.
They appear to have found the threat they wanted, albeit with a different jersey name on his 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 back out there playing.’ Because he always wanted me to get back out there and play.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein