Saints’ decision to release running back Tim Hightower came down to numbers game _lowres

New Orleans Saints’ Tim Hightower runs during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Green Bay Packers Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)

Tim Hightower knows the uncertainty that Khiry Robinson must be feeling right now.

Three years ago, Hightower was in the middle of a contract year in Washington, working hard as the starter, when he suffered a torn ACL.

So after Hightower was called back to New Orleans by the Saints on Monday to take Robinson’s place, the veteran running back headed to the hospital to see Robinson and offer whatever words of encouragement he could give to the young running back, who suffered a broken tibia in the win over the Giants.

“That was the first thing I did when I got back here in town,” Hightower said. “My heart goes out to him. I just wanted to let him know, I’m here with you, I’ll be here every step of the way, every step of this whole rehab process and make sure you get back 100 percent.”

Robinson’s injury paved the way for Hightower to return to football.

The torn ACL he suffered in Washington never healed quite right, forcing Hightower out of the NFL for three years. When he got a chance to go to training camp with the Saints this season, Hightower was essentially down to his last shot; teams called early on during his absence, but as the injury lingered, the phone stopped ringing.

Then he got his chance in New Orleans.

Finally feeling strong again, Hightower ran with a powerful, no-nonsense style in training camp, picking up a team-leading 96 yards on 29 carries in the preseason. Hightower felt like he’d done enough to earn a roster spot.

And briefly, the veteran had one. Hightower spent the first week with New Orleans, then found himself released the day before the season opener. Brought in again the next week, Hightower was cut again the next day.

“It didn’t catch me by surprise,” Hightower said. “I thought I did everything I could in training camp, but I was prepared for whichever way it happened. (Payton) was straightforward in letting me know the different options.”

Hightower headed home to Richmond, Virginia. Teams called, but most told him he’d be on their short list in case injuries struck their running back position.

After coming so close to completing his comeback, Hightower had to put his head down and go back to work, hoping he’d get a call. Physically, the veteran running back went back to the sports medicine clinic at Virginia Commonwealth and the personal trainer he’d been using the past three years.

Hightower spent the time watching the games, calling the plays as New Orleans lined up, paying attention to the audibles of Drew Brees, setting his TiVo to record the games and rewinding them.

He wanted to keep his mind as well as his body sharp.

“Being out for so long, you deal with so many different emotions, the ups and downs, the highs and lows, and what I had to do the last three years is the same thing I had to do the last two months,” Hightower said. “Keep plugging away, stay close to my family and keep working.”

New Orleans needed Hightower to be ready.

With Robinson around to keep him fresh and healthy, Mark Ingram is turning in arguably his best season in New Orleans — he ranks fourth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage — and C.J. Spiller has been coming on strong, but the Saints like to have a third running back available.

Hightower, for the first time in a long, long time, is that guy.

“I think Tim brings a real physical element,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “He’ll get back in the swing of things really quickly. He’ll be able to be productive in anything we ask him to do.”

And he’s been waiting a long time to have this opportunity.