INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It was warm and sunny. Optimism seemed to lurk around every corner at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield as training camp unfolded.
T.Y. Hilton was entering his eighth season – eighth, from crying out loud!! – and never had been more geeked.
“This team is probably the most talented team I’ve been around,’’ he said, not the least bit interested in low-keying his excitement and anticipation. “This team is special. This team has enough to do what we want to do.’’
That was T.Y. Hilton when there was every reason to believe this might be the year.
It was before the franchise quarterback shocked the franchise and the NFL by retiring.
It was before the most decorated kicker in league history began scattering field goals.
It was before injuries began decimating the skill positions.
It was before the backup-turned-starting-QB saw a productive first half of the season replaced by a wildly inefficient second half.
And it most certainly was before T.Y. Hilton saw that eighth season disintegrate into what without question has been the most frustrating of his career.
A quadriceps injury kept him out of the week 4 game against Oakland. A calf injury suffered in a non-contact drill in an Oct. 30 practice has forced him to miss five of the last seven games and rendered him a non-factor in the other two. His contributions at Houston and New Orleans: seven catches and 43 yards.
Prior to this season, Hilton had missed four of a possible 120 games.
Instead of helping his team return to the playoffs or generating a sixth 1,000-yard season or earning a fifth Pro Bowl selection, he’s simply committed to finishing what he started.
“You just want to get something out of this year,’’ Hilton said. “Continue to give all you have, continue to play for the team and continue to build that bond heading into next year.’’
The injuries have taken a toll.
“Yeah, just being hurt,’’ he said. “I haven’t really experienced being injured, missing games and missing as many as I did this year. It’s mentally tough, but I’ll be all right.’’
Hilton has taken pride in “just staying with it . . . (continuing) to fight through it.’’
“Circumstances happen, injuries happen and it’s just part of the game,’’ he said. “It drained me a little bit, but I’m better now.’’
As the second half of the season unfolded and the losses mounted – the Colts were officially eliminated from the playoffs with Monday’s loss to the Saints – some wondered if Hilton might wind up on the injured reserve list, either by his request or by the team’s decision.
“Anybody in my position could have done that,’’ he said. “I’m built different. I’m not that type of guy.’’
That stubbornness hasn’t surprised offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni.
“It’s a credit to him he didn’t (quit),’’ he said. “He’s fighting through it. No matter what situation you put T.Y. Hilton in, he’s going to be the same guy and he’s going to be that competitive, driven (player).
“That’s why he’s a good player. He has that inner desire to be great.’’
That was evident late last season. Hilton suffered high and low sprains to his right ankle in a week 14 win at Houston, yet remained an offensive focal point. Over the next five games, including the playoffs, he had 23 catches and 429 yards despite practicing just once.
Sirianni has seen Hilton approach this year with the same determination and commitment as last season.
“The same want-to to be great,’’ he said. “The same desire to be out there with his teammates as he had last year. The injury last year, he was able to play through it more than he’s been able to this year. But being able to get himself healthy to rejoin us, I’ve really just seen the same guy.
“I feel like I’ve seen the same toughness and the same grit and the same competitiveness that I saw last year.’’
Hilton apparently is regaining his health, but still wasn’t totally incorporated into the offense at New Orleans. He was on the field for 52 percent of the plays (29 of 56) and finished with just four catches and 25 yards on nine targets. He was targeted only twice (both incompletions) in the first half and often wasn’t on the field in third-down situations.
The expectation is for Hilton’s playing time to increase over the final two games, beginning Sunday against Carolina in the team’s home finale.
Maybe he regains the form that made him one of the NFL’s top playmakers. Hilton ranks third in team history with 33 100-yard games – Marvin Harrison had 59 and Reggie Wayne 43 – but he’s yet to hit triple digits this season.
He’s sitting with 39 receptions, 403 yards and five touchdowns, and averaging a very un-Hilton-like 10.3 yards per catch.
A strong closing kick in the final two games won’t erase the disappointment built up over the previous 14. But it would be something to take into the offseason. “We’re all ready,’’ Hilton said. “We’re all prepared.’’