While T.Y. Hilton's quantifiable impact this season may seem small – 20 catches, 247 yards, two touchdowns in eight games – there's no mistaking how important he's been to the Colts in 2021.
Last week, after head coach Frank Reich revealed the Colts' seven Pro Bowlers, Hilton brought his teammates together to deliver a message: For the Pro Bowl guys, enjoy the honor. And for everyone else, understand what it means to have so many Pro Bowlers.
"What it also mean is we got the players," Hilton said in a speech aired on ". "What it also mean is we got the team. What it also mean is we got the coaches. We got the three major pieces to get to where want to get to. Now let's put the pieces to the puzzle and let's put it together."
Hilton then turned his focus to the Colts' Week 16 game against the Arizona Cardinals, a 10-win team coming off consecutive losses – the latter of which was to the Detroit Lions.
"Last week? That was a great win," Hilton said of the Colts' Week 15 win over the Patriots. "We gotta throw that s— out the window. Because this team we're about to play, they're coming off two losses. And they're at home. So they're gonna protect it.
"So if we want it, we gotta bring it. So we have to match their intensity? No, no. They gotta match our intensity from the get go. So let's bring that s—."
Before training camp started, Reich explained what he's come to appreciate about Hilton going into his fourth year with the veteran wide receiver.
"I always knew T.Y. was a great player, but what I've really enjoyed watching is what a great leader he is and how hard he works physically," Reich said. "But just how great a teammate he is. I'm sure he's got a selfish bone in his body because we all do, but when we're out on the practice field and out in games, I feel like he's an incredibly unselfish player.
"Like when he comes to me on the sideline, if he hasn't got the ball, and he's like 'come on,' indicating to me, come on, get me the ball — I know that can be done in two different ways. That can be done like hey, what are you doing, get me the football. Or that can be done like, hey man, I want to help, I can beat this guy, I can get us going, I can be the spark. That's the way T.Y. does that. I just love the guy."
Reich's preseason appreciation for Hilton played out months later when, during the Colts' Week 13 win over the Houston Texans, Hilton went to his coach on the sideline in an exchange caught on "Hard Knocks."
"You don't have to go out of your way to get me the ball," Hilton told Reich.
Reich then relayed what Hilton told him to Wentz and said: "Pro. P-R-O."
Hilton had two catches for 22 yards in the Colts' 31-0 win over the Texans. Those two catches were a career low for Hilton against Houston, a team he's tormented over his decade in the AFC South. It was the product of the Texans trying to take Hilton out of the game – and Hilton's message to Reich was a response to the coverages he was seeing on the field.
"Houston did something they hadn't done in 10 years," Hilton said. "They started doubling me. They started paying a lot of attention to me, I guess. They made it their business to take me out of the game. We were calling a lot of plays for me, a lot of shots for me and they just weren't giving it up.
"So, I went to him and said, 'I see what you're doing but you don't have to force me the ball.' That just means, don't go out of the game plan to try and get me the ball. Just go ahead."
The 32-year-old Hilton is the longest-tenured member of the Colts and is one of the team's most important voices in the locker room. And he sets the tone for an offense that wants to spread things around – which requires every player, every week, to be ready.
Some weeks, that means a heavy dose of Jonathan Taylor. Others, it means Jack Doyle or Nyheim Hines or Michael Pittman Jr. is a focal point. Mo Alie-Cox, Zach Pascal and Ashton Dulin have played significant roles at times this season, too.
And against the Cardinals, Hilton's four catches – which included a touchdown, a 39-yard snag and a tough third down conversion – were critical plays in the Colts' win on Christmas night.
"I'm just trying to be the leader that these guys can look up to," Hilton said. "If I can do it, I know they can do it as well. Just trying to be a team player, do everything that I can to help this team win. If my voice speaks, then I need to speak. I'm just trying to help this team."
Hilton has spoken up a few times this year when the Colts have needed it – he gave an inspirational speech before his first game of the season when the Colts were 1-4 heading into Week 6. And after Hilton encouraged his team to set the intensity on Saturday against the Cardinals, the Colts did just that – with a team full of next men up, no less.
And moments like that – whether it's before a game, during a game or after a game – are why the Colts appreciate Hilton so much and trust him no matter if the ball is in his hands or not.
"He knows the pulse of the team," Reich said. "He feels like he knows the right thing to say, and think that comes from all his years of experience, it comes from this competitive fire that he has in him. It's really something.
"... He's phenomenal. Phenomenal leader. And he's still, to me, he's still looking good. We got to get him the ball, we got to find ways to get him the ball more, keep him involved, because I think he still looks great in practice, running great routes and still looks as fast as ever."