Athletes Desperate to Hit the Reset Button This Year

Sid QuashieFeatured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2017

Athletes Desperate to Hit the Reset Button This Year

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    The truth about athletic excellence is that it doesn’t last forever, and one bad year can domino into a long decline, which is why the athletes on this list are all desperate to hit the reset button this year and revitalize their careers. It’s a new year, which means new resolutions, new hope and in some cases irrational exuberance about the possibilities of reinvention or just a reversion to the mean.

    Some of the athletes on this list, such as Albert Pujols, have already secured their all-time bona fides, so a reset in his case is less about confirming greatness than it is about reminding fans he still has one last run inside him.

    The sports stars on this list have all lost luster through diminished skills, scandal or recent losses that have shaken the foundations of their previous dominance. And though there is no Fountain of Youth that can reverse time and restore skills, mental fortitude and good physical health can often be enough to recharge an athlete’s batteries.

    So here’s hoping that these athletes get their mojo back in 2017.

Honorable Mentions

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    Ronda Rousey: If she retires, there’s no reason for her to reset her career.

    Chris Bosh: Similar to Rousey, Bosh continues to consider retirement, though it’s a near certainty that the Miami Heat will waive him at the February trade deadline.

Cain Velasquez

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    The one-time Mexican-American UFC heavyweight champion had snatched the crown of “baddest man on the planet” from the likes of Fedor Emelianenko and Brock Lesnar and seemed poised to dominate the division for an extended time.

    But since winning the heavyweight title via knockout of Brock Lesnar on October 23, 2010, Velasquez, 34, lost the belt to Junior dos Santos, won it back and then lost it again to Fabricio Werdum on June 13, 2015, via guillotine choke.

    His last fight was on July 9, 2016, a TKO victory over Travis Browne, but since then, injuries have derailed his comeback, and Velasquez is approaching the age where the body begins to break down.

    He was scheduled to fight former champion Werdum at UFC 207 on December 30, 2016, but the Nevada State Athletic Commission removed him from the card at the last minute, citing concerns about a lingering back injury.

    In an interview with ESPN.com’s Brett Okamoto just nine days before the scheduled fight, Velasquez described his back pain in this way: “It’s an achy pain that goes down your leg, and it gets to a point where if you’re standing for 10 minutes, you have to sit down.”

    That didn’t sound like a man who was prepared to take part in a major fight, and in fact Velasquez underwent minor back surgery on January 6, per Dave Doyle of MMA Fighting. He will be sidelined one month.

    It remains to be seen whether the UFC will reschedule the Werdum fight and when Velasquez will get the chance to reclaim his throne, but it goes without saying that he needs a big victory to set up a shot at another title bout.

Jon Jones

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    (Warning: The above video contains language NSFW).

    Not to pile on, but Jones’ inactivity and lack of a light heavyweight belt are due mostly to his own negligence.

    Jones, 29, won the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship by TKO over Mauricio Rua on March 19, 2011, and defended that belt eight times before the UFC stripped him of his title after a hit-and-run incident in Albuquerque, New Mexico in April 2015.

    Daniel Cormier replaced Jones for UFC 187 on May 23, 2015, and defeated Anthony Johnson to claim the belt.

    After his reinstatement in October 2015, Jones’ title fight against champion Cormier was derailed after DC was injured. Top challenger Ovince Saint Preux replaced Cormier, and Jones beat Saint Preux via unanimous decision for the interim title.

    The much anticipated bout with Cormier for the undisputed light heavyweight title was scheduled for UFC 200, but the UFC removed Jones from the card after an anti-doping violation.

    Per Damon Martin of FoxSports.com, the USADA suspended Jones until July 2017 because of the doping violation, making him the first fighter in UFC history to have his title taken away twice.

    UFC President Dana White expressed his frustration with Jones in an interview with Brett Okamoto of ESPN.com. “Jon Jones has blown it in every way shape and form a guy with that much talent can blow it,” White said. “Greatest talent ever and the biggest screw-up ever.”

    Those are strong words, but Jones still has a chance to prove his doubters wrong and hit the reset button by coming back strong after July. He could perhaps earn a title shot against the winner of the expected upcoming light heavyweight title bout between champion Cormier and top challenger Johnson.

Albert Pujols

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    Pujols can book his ticket to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony five years after he retires because his career numbers are sterling.

    But his recent numbers, especially the southward trend in his batting average, back up the decline in his game.

    In 2008, Pujols batted .357, but by 2015, that average had dropped to .244. Things did not get better last season, as Pujols batted .268 with a paltry .323 on-base percentage, far short of the numbers expected of a player of his stature.

    Sixteen years into his major league career, Pujols has become the unfortunate victim of age and injuries, and his decline is tied to these two factors that force many great players to call it a day.

    But should Pujols enter the 2017 MLB season healthy, he may reclaim the bat speed and power that made him such a legendary player, especially during his career with the St. Louis Cardinals.

    The major challenge for Pujols is that he is playing next to one of the transcendent baseball players of the past 50 years in AL MVP Mike Trout and is coming up short in comparison.

    After Pujols' season ended in September 2016 due to plantar fasciitis, Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register interviewed him about his hopes for 2017.

    “I’m going to be ready to play first base,” Pujols said. “Hopefully I’ll get to train the way I want and I’ll come back as a first baseman. I want to get back on the field.”

    Pujols added that he disliked playing DH, but Anaheim Angels manager Mike Scioscia has not committed to playing him at first base, so it remains to be seen which version of Pujols will show up on Opening Day.

Matt Harvey

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    Harvey, the New York Mets’ would-be ace, is only 27, but he seems so much older given his history of injuries and the drama surrounding his pitch count over the past few years.

    His 2016 season went off a cliff after a 4-10 campaign and a massive 4.86 ERA in 17 games that ended with thoracic outlet syndrome surgery (TOS) to alleviate pain in his shoulder and neck.

    Harvey had already missed the entire 2014 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and though he was an All-Star the season before, injuries and secrecy in how the Mets delivered information about his status have derailed much of his career.

    But according to Maria Guardado of NJ.com, there’s reason for optimism because Harvey’s agent, Scott Boras, reported that the ace is recovering well.

    “He’s throwing free and easy,” Boras said. “He’s strong. He’s had a great deal of time to work out and focus on his body and strength. We expect him to come back and be the Matt Harvey of old.”

    Mets fans hope Boras’ words come true and that Harvey returns to form, because the team lost pitching stalwart Bartolo Colon to the Atlanta Braves in free agency, and its best closer, Jeurys Familia, is facing domestic violence charges, per Jack Dickey of SI.com.

    If Harvey can once again show dominance, the Mets can rely on him and flame-thrower Noah Syndergaard to carry the staff, pending a trade for another starting pitcher.

Tony Romo

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    Was the word “reset” ever more appropriate to a player like Romo, who did not lose his starting job because of incompetence but because of his inability to stay healthy?

    Romo needs to find a new home where he can take first-team snaps again and prove he can stay healthy for a full 16-game season.

    His feel-good 81-yard drive on January 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles that ended with a touchdown throw to Terrance Williams reminded fans that Romo hasn’t forgotten how to play the game.

    But it could also have been a harbinger of things to come, as Romo could be throwing touchdowns for a different team in the 2017 NFL season.

    Speculation abounds about possible destinations for Romo, with Adam Schefter of ESPN listing the Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos, New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals as the most likely landing spots for the injury-prone QB.

    Wherever he lands, Romo has a lot to prove in 2017, and if he can remain healthy and find the right fit, he may end up having the last laugh.

Cam Newton

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    Newton and his Carolina Panthers teammates hit the wall of adversity this season and couldn’t muster the energy to break through.

    Injuries played a huge role in the Panthers' disappointing run, and per Matthew Stevens of Panthers Wire, the team suffered through 16 players on injured reserve, including stars such as left tackle Michael Oher and center Ryan Kalil.

    And all-everything linebacker Luke Kuechly and valuable running back Jonathan Stewart were lost for multiple games this season, but most of the blame will fall on Newton regardless.

    He is the star quarterback, the reigning league MVP and the team leader, and his numbers were not great in 2016.

    Newton played in 15 games and amassed 19 touchdowns to 14 interceptions for a 75.8 QB rating—nearly 24 points lower than last season's 99.4.

    Newton is capable of playing with much better poise and needs to come back next season with a vengeance.

    According to David Newton of ESPN.com, the Panthers quarterback is the fourth-best signal-caller in the NFC South, and since the division has only four teams, you can probably do the math.

    Newton did battle a shoulder injury in the last quarter of the season, and he took a pounding while running the ball, but to prove that his 2015 NFL MVP campaign wasn’t a fluke, he will need a strong showing and probably an NFC Championship Game appearance to erase doubts about his reputation.

Colin Kaepernick

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    The irony with Kaepernick is that as maligned as he was in the court of public opinion, his San Francisco 49ers teammates never wavered in their support for their embattled quarterback.

    In fact, per Darin Gantt of Pro Football Talk, Kaepernick won the Len Eshmont Award, which is voted on by 49ers players and is given to a teammate who most exemplified inspiration and courage.

    And with the 49ers in a state of flux and needing to hire a coach and general manager, it’s doubtful that Kaepernick fits into the long-term plans.

    So like Tony Romo, Kaepernick needs a major reset in a different environment, and his numbers this season showed he could still be an effective starting quarterback in the right situation.

    In 12 games this season, he threw 16 touchdowns and only four interceptions with a 90.7 passer rating. He also rushed for 468 yards and two touchdowns, which ranked second among quarterbacks behind Tyrod Taylor of the Buffalo Bills.

    Kaepernick has already voided his contract for 2017, making him a free agent, and Kirk Larrabee of 247Sports referenced an interview with ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer on KBNR radio in which Dilfer said: “If you’re going to start over fresh, it has to be completely fresh. There can’t be any of the carryover that the fans and everybody suffered through the past few years. The next GM and coach are going to have a vision for how they want the quarterback to play. And I don’t think Colin is going to fit into that vision.”

    Kaepernick figures to get some interest from teams with question marks at QB, such as the Denver Broncos, Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans, so he will likely get the opportunity to reset his career, even if that includes continuing his practice of kneeling during the national anthem.

Nick Kyrgios

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    No one has ever doubted that Kyrgios, the volatile 21-year-old Australian, is blessed with massive talent and could become the next gen version of Roger Federer or Andy Murray.

    No less a tennis authority than Rod Laver believes Kyrgios has the right stuff. Per the Guardian (via the Australian Associated Press), Laver said: “Ability-wise, he could be the best tennis player in the world, only he is the one that gets in his way. He plays some magnificent tennis but then something gets in the way and he finds himself being challenged by other things, whether behavior or whatever seems to come up.”

    What seems to come up over and over is Kyrgios’ inability to keep his mouth shut or to actually pretend he’s competing in certain matches.

    After an October 2015 Shangai Masters match against Mischa Zverev in which Kyrgios stopped playing competitively and appeared to tank, the ATP fined him $25,000 (adding to a previous $16,500 fine) and suspended him from competition until January 15 of this year.

    Despite a knee injury, Kyrgios will play in the 2017 Australian Open that begins on January 16. He should have every opportunity to redeem his reputation with a solid showing Down Under, especially since he will be playing on home turf.

    His best showing at the Australian Open was making the final eight in 2015, so equaling or bettering that feat would go a long way toward launching his 2017 season in a positive direction.

Tiger Woods

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    Has it become a cliche to mention Woods as an athlete in need of a career resurgence?

    Maybe, but the continuing interest in the former champion’s private and public life is proof that golf badly needs his star power.

    It seems like decades ago that Woods, 41, was the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world and well on his way to breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships.

    But he hasn’t won a major in nearly nine years or earned a PGA tournament win since 2013.

    It’s true that knee and back injuries have robbed Woods of his prime, but even when healthy, he hasn’t seemed to have the old dominant vibe.

    However, what Woods showed in the Hero World Challenge in December gave fans hope he could have a big year in 2017.

    Per Steve DiMeglio of USA Today, Woods’ play in the first round of the tournament showed improvements in his short game, power and strength after nearly a year-and-a-half of inactivity, and even his former coach Hank Haney remarked on Twitter: “From what I saw today I see Tiger winning more tournaments and at least one more major, lot's of positives today.”

    Haney’s prediction may yet come true, and Wood has all of 2017 to rewrite the trajectory of this last act of his golf career.