Food & Drink
The Numbers Guy
Sean Clement backed into a career he didn’t know existed
By Danny O’Neil October 9, 2023
Sean Clement was not looking for a profession when he began applying formulas to football. He just needed practice.
A graduate of Bremerton High School, Clement was an officer in the Army in his mid-30s. He felt a little bit out of his depth among all these big math brains as he began a graduate program at Stanford’s engineering school.
“I was significantly older than most of my classmates,” Clement says, “and had been out of school for a very long time. I needed more reps. I needed more practice, so I found football data sources anywhere I could find them and then I started asking questions.”
How important is hang time when it comes to determining the effectiveness of a punter? (Answer: Very important.) Does an uptick in a placekicker’s accuracy carry to the following season? (Answer: Not so much.)
Those were two of the first steps on a path that led Clement to the NFL, first as a consultant for the Ravens and Dolphins, now as a vice president at SumerSports, a firm that works with teams across the league. It’s a remarkable story, one that demonstrates both the increasing importance of data science in professional sports and the unexpected possibilities that education can unlock even in today’s economy.
Clement’s family didn’t have much when he was growing up. They moved from Bremerton to Olympia to Shelton and then to Seabeck, where their house was built on sawed-off tree stumps as opposed to a concrete foundation.
“They’re doing much better now,” Clement says of his family, “but at the time, it’s almost hard to envision how rickety a shack it was.”
The refrigerator was located on the porch.
Clement graduated from Bremerton in 2003, earned his associate degree from Olympic College a year later and then enlisted in the Army, working as a helicopter mechanic. From there, he earned admission to West Point, which is where he first realized he had an interest and an aptitude in math and statistics. That didn’t change his trajectory, though. He wanted to be exactly what he became: a helicopter pilot.
He was deployed to Afghanistan in spring of 2012 through 2013, but the weight of the equipment he wore while flying a Blackhawk at night caused excess pressure on his neck, resulting in a fractured vertebra and pinched nerve. The injury forced him to change his career plans.
“I was having so much pain from aviation,” he says, “I couldn’t see how I could possibly continue flying.”
It was at that point he switched to data analysis, and he was then stationed in Germany. He was at an Airbnb in the Swiss Alps when he watched the Seahawks beat the 49ers to reach the Super Bowl. It must have been 3 or 4 in the morning when the homeowner came up to tell him to keep it down.
He was still serving in the Army when he enrolled in that graduate program at Stanford in 2016, and he turned to football statistics to help him understand what he was studying.
“The homework at Stanford, it felt very theory heavy to me,” Clement says, “and I’m a very practical person. I found myself asking, ‘What the heck am I going to use this for?’”
To better understand the NFL kicking game, of course. He started publishing his findings not in academic journals, but online using Reddit, Twitter, and eventually Field Gulls.com, a site dedicated to the Seahawks — the team he’d grown up rooting for.
“At that point,” Clement says, “I just wanted to write for Seahawks fans and write about the Seahawks and praise and/or complain about my team with numbers.”
That sort of thing has become important for much more than just online arguments. It’s a way that (smart) NFL teams can find an edge.
If you’ve spent any time watching NFL football during the past couple of years, you’ve almost certainly heard the announcers reference analytics. Usually, they do this after a coach makes a decision that cuts against the grain of precedent. He skips on the chip-shot field-goal attempt at fourth-and-goal to go for the touchdown. He passes on punting at midfield because he hopes his team can get the first down. If the gambit fails, the announcers will inevitably suck in their cheeks and bemoan the tendency to listen to mathematicians and stat geeks instead of making the kind of decisions coaches have always made.
It’s too bad, because analytics aren’t about turning professional sports over to probability charts and actuarial tables. They’re about using new tools to make the decisions that give your team the best chance at success. In that way, they provide the opportunity to find an edge. That can be true in game-management decisions like going for it on fourth down or in questions on whom to draft by identifying the specific traits in individual players that are most likely to predict future success.
“The biggest gains in predictive power and roster construction I’ve seen,” Clement notes, “have been by melding together objective statistics and scouting grades. It’s incredibly difficult to do analytic work without human judgment.”
Analytics took root in baseball first, which is understandable because the principal activity in that sport is a one-on-one matchup, batter vs. pitcher, repeated for hundreds of pitches per game and thousands of at-bats per season.
Football is much more complicated; each side with 11 players can be arranged in a variety of formations and coached to employ different strategies and techniques. It’s like chess, except all of the pieces are moving at once and they’re afforded the opportunity to periodically bludgeon one another.
Analytics have provided a way for people from outside the football industry to reveal some deeper truths about the game. Clement started with special-teams questions specifically because that was something no one else was doing. He began making connections with other people who were taking similarly quantitative approaches at Pro Football Focus and FiveThirtyEight.com.
In 2019, the Baltimore Ravens were looking to hire a data scientist and several people suggested Clement.
“I didn’t honestly think it could be a career until it started to become one,” Clement says.
There had to be some stipulations, though. Clement was stationed in Monterey, Calif., with Army Futures Command. Any work would have to be remote, and on a part-time basis, but he got the gig and took another step on a path he didn’t even know existed.
Clement subsequently worked for the Miami Dolphins and the Cincinnati Reds, and he’s now at SumerSports, a firm that launched in 2022 to provide teams with the tools and analytics expertise to improve roster construction. Sumer’s CEO is Thomas Dimitroff, a longtime NFL executive who was formerly the GM for the Atlanta Falcons.
“He has been working in football for over 30 years,” Clement says of Dimitroff. “He has forgotten more about football than I will probably ever know on the scouting side. But he and I get to sit down and have really earnest conversations on ‘What’s the future of NFL football?’ and ‘How do we get there?’”
The opportunity is as exciting as it is unexpected, a testament to Clement’s appetite for new challenges as well as the impact numbers are having on tour country’s most popular professional sport.. It’s pretty amazing how far a little extra homework has taken him.