INDIANAPOLIS — There haven’t been any “T.Y.” hand-gesture celebrations after touchdowns this season.
Once considered among the NFL’s most-feared deep threats, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton has been living up to his nickname “The Ghost” for the wrong reasons recently.
He’s been invisible.
Apologists quickly defend that it’s not all his fault, that he’s working with a new quarterback in Philip Rivers. They’re convinced Hilton is due for a breakout game to remind that he’s still got it.
The timing would be ideal for “The Ghost” to be an impact player at the Detroit Lions on Sunday, one day after Halloween. Trick or treat?
Problem is, the Lions head coach is Matt Patricia, the former New England Patriots defensive coordinator. He’s quite familiar with Hilton. And Colts fans are well aware of how the Patriots have defended pass-catchers for years — head coach Bill Belichick’s guys do a lot of grabbing, tugging, and arm-barring. The blueprint is simple: Take away the star player any way possible, even if it means a few penalty flags.
That’s one thing Hilton has been able to do so far in 2020. He’s drawn seven penalties for 71 yards. On two other plays, he drew penalties that were declined because he made receptions for first downs.
But here’s the thing about pass-catchers getting mugged. Inevitably, they’re expected to fend off the hands more often than not and still make plays. Despite his diminutive size at 5-10 and 183 pounds, defenders typically couldn’t catch Hilton because he was too fast and crafty.
He went to four consecutive Pro Bowls from 2013 to 2017. But that was when Andrew Luck was his quarterback. The marriage with Rivers hasn’t worked, at least not yet. Hilton has 20 receptions for 242 yards and no TDs. He’s been targeted a team-high 37 times, nine more than Zach Pascal. But the 30-year-old wide receiver doesn’t even lead the Colts (4-2) in receptions. Running back Nyheim Hines has 23.
What gets mentioned perhaps more than anything is the fact that Hilton hasn’t had a 100-yard receiving game since 2018, a dubious stretch of 19 games that includes two in the playoffs.
Lest anyone forget, Hilton is in a contract year and looking to get paid. He’s said he wants to be a “Colt for life.”
And that’s not all he’s said.
Before the season opener, an excited Hilton proclaimed that he couldn’t be covered when he was hurt or healthy. But after a 27-20 road loss to Jacksonville, Hilton said he cost his team the game by dropping the last two passes thrown to him on the Colts’ final possession. He was targeted nine times, but had just four receptions for 53 yards.
Hilton has since suggested that he can only put up numbers when his number is called. He backtracked by saying that wasn’t a criticism of the play-calling, but how else could that comment be construed?
In the Colts’ last game before a Week 7 bye, Hilton had only one catch for 11 yards, although Rivers passed for 371 yards and three TDs in a 31-27 home win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
As the Colts prepared for the Lions, Hilton spoke of how he’s been grabbed this season. Again, that should be nothing new. Defenders have been trying to play physical with him since he arrived in 2012. Problem is, the tactic is working. He hasn’t taken over a game.
“I’m definitely getting grabbed more, but I guess that’s what they’re game planning,” Hilton said on a Thursday video call. “They will deal with the penalties as long as I’m not making explosive plays and I’m not able to change the game. So for me, I’ve just got to get their hands off – do what I can to get them off and make plays and give my team the momentum.”
Asked a follow-up about how he can stop this trend, he said, “I don’t know what more I can do. I guess I have to get open more.”
That was never a problem in the past. He’s caught 572 passes for 8,840 yards (15.5 yards per catch) and 45 TDs in the regular season in his career. In eight playoff games, he’s had 45 receptions for 749 yards (16.6 yards per catch) and three TDs.
But after two years battling injuries, Hilton sure doesn’t look like the same player he once was. In his prime, he didn’t need to talk loud because he was confident. The best don't need to brag because their play speaks volumes. And another thing, you didn’t hear continual excuses like now.
The clock is ticking on his Colts career. He insists earning a new contract isn’t on his mind, but like so much of what he’s been saying lately, don’t believe that for a second.
He’s being paid $14.5 million to do a hell of a lot more.
Shut up and make plays or "The Ghost" will disappear for good.
(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)