WR Ike Hilliard believes his years under coordinator Sean Payton in New York will give him insight into the Buccaneers' offensive system
Ike Hilliard talks too matter-of-factly about his NFL career to have a chip on his shoulder. He sounds too appreciative of his new opportunity in Tampa to worry about what could have been in New York. He is, to all appearances, a satisfied NFL veteran starting a new chapter in an already fulfilling career.
Appearances can be deceiving.
Hilliard does have something to prove, and we glean this not from his relaxed demeanor upon joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday but, plainly, from his own words. Only 29 and coming off an eight-year stint in New York that was good without ever being completely satisfying, Hilliard is looking to prove that his best years are ahead of him.
"I want to show people I can play," he said. "I've had enough of the dirt-throwing. I'm hoping to show that I'm playing with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder."
Actually, there's never been much doubt about Hilliard's skills. He was the seventh overall pick in the 1997 draft and his scouting reports have always been glowing – great hands, polished routes, intelligent play, good run-after-the-catch ability. Hilliard's issue, as he is fully aware, has always been injuries. He can remember exactly when it started.
Rookie season, second game, first drive, fourth play. He recites the scenario exactly. Two games into his NFL career he sustained a neck injury that some considered career-threatening. He took a hard hit while making a 23-yard catch and ended up with a torn ligament between his sixth and seventh vertebrae. Surgery fused those two vertebrae and Hilliard returned amid some concern in 1998, but seven subsequent NFL seasons have obviously proved that he was fit to play.
That was the first time he experienced the "dirt-throwing," as in the premature burial of his career. He later battled through a dislocated shoulder in 2002, courtesy of another hard hit from a safety, and several other injuries of varying magnitude in the intervening years. The result was a string of seasons that, while very successful, could have been more so, and he knows it.
Hilliard finished his New York career with 368 catches for 4,630 yards, totals that are second only to longtime teammate Amani Toomer among wideouts in Giant history. He peaked at 72 receptions in 1999 and fell just four yards short of a 1,000-yard season that year. He also contributed eight touchdowns and a very productive postseason during the Giants' 2000 run to the Super Bowl.
But he wants more, and Tampa is the perfect place to pursue it.
"This is a great opportunity for me to play football again," said Hilliard. "I was fortunate enough to get that call from Coach Gruden. I was blessed enough with this great opportunity. I just want to come in and do whatever it takes to help this football team win and just try and be a productive football player."
Hilliard stressed that his number-one choice of destinations upon being released by the Giants during the offseason was Tampa. The Buccaneers did not and will not reveal the financial particulars of his contract, but Hilliard made it clear that he wasn't lured back to the Sunshine State, where he starred collegiately at Florida, by dollar signs.
"We all want to be taken care of financially, but I'm here more for the non-economical reasons," he said. "Definitely, after signing a contract [in Tampa], I'm not trying to play anywhere else. I want to finish my career here. If I play well and stay healthy, that stuff will come. That's the furthest thing from my mind right now. I'm just looking forward to having an opportunity to play and make some plays. I'm just grateful to be back in the National Football League."
Hilliard played in a system he considers similar to that run by Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden for several years under coordinator Sean Payton in New York. Payton served as the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterbacks coach under Gruden, the Eagles' offensive coordinator, in 1997. Hilliard will have to learn a new offensive system for the second time in three years, but he thinks he has a head start on the playbook he was handed at One Buccaneer Place. That's one of the reasons he was eager to land in Tampa.
"I think it was the best fit because of what they have here and what I may be asked to do as far as my role in the offense," said Hilliard. "I think this system fits my style of play pretty well. Regardless of any other offer, this is pretty much where we wanted to be.
"I feel pretty good about what I think they're going to do here. I haven't gotten into the terminology and everything yet, but I kind of have an idea of what's going to go on. I think it just fits the way I play."
Really, Hilliard, with his even speech and thoughtful answers, appears as if he could fit in anywhere. And maybe he could. But he wants more than that, and that's why he chose Tampa. This is the place he can satisfy that chip on his shoulder.