Third down, red zone, goal-to-go...offensive shortcomings in those situations often get bandied about as a main culprit for a team's struggles. What an offense does on first and second down might be more important, in terms of consistency and setting up more frequent opportunities for third downs and/or an extra set of downs, the things that move a team down the field and get them closer to the scoring. First and second down performance, in fact, is a better predictor of a team's consistency and future success than the less frequent, more volatile third down situations. (More on this notion at Football Outsiders). So what about the Rams offense on first and second downs?
First of all, let's start with one caveat to any analysis of the Rams 2007 or 2008 performance: they were so bad, ALL of their numbers stink. That said, I think it's worth a look at the team's offensive performance on first and second down because it does shed some light on their struggles. Here are the offensive numbers from 2008 using DVOA, courtesy of FO's premium database, broken out by rush and pass plays with league rank in parentheses. (Quickly, DVOA measures performance compared to average and adjusted for opponents, i.e. a -23.9% DVOA on first down means that the Rams were 23.9% less successful than an average team on first downs. More on DVOA here.)
Yikes! Those aren't good numbers, as if you needed anyone to tell you that. Essentially what happened here is that the Rams were so bad on first and second downs, they're not even giving themselves enough chances to consistently bungle it on third downs, where they actually had some (all things being relative) greater success, like an 8.4% DVOA on 3rd/4th down runs.
Some further explanation about what constitutes success on each down, from FO: "On first down, a play is considered a success if it gains 45 percent of needed yards; on second down, a play needs to gain 60 percent of needed yards; on third or fourth down, only gaining a new first down is considered success."
Because the Rams failed to gain the needed yardage on early downs, they consistently set themselves up for predictable plays that were easily stopped thanks to weaknesses on the offensive line and elsewhere. Let's look at an example from the Rams week 15 20-23 heartbreaker against the Seahags at the Dome. Forth quarter, Rams lead 20-13. continuing their drive from the third quarter, the Rams make it to the Seattle 29. On 1st-and-10, Bulger completes a pass to Avery for no gain. Next, it's a handoff to Jackson, up the notoriously weak middle for a one-yard loss. Third-and-11 is a tough enough position for the Rams offense, which had a -18.4% DVOA on third downs last year, but a holding call on Incognito makes it 3rd-and-21. Bulger does complete an 11-yard pass to Avery (telling since the Rams had a DVOA of -4.1% on 3rd-and-long, their best percentage of all 3rd down situations), but it's only enough to put them in field goal range. Seattle goes on to score a TD and a FG to win it.
Now, let's reconsider that sequence from the alternative universe perspective. Say the Rams are successful on first down, and gain five yards. That opens up more plays for the Rams, and leaves the Seahawks guessing as to what's coming. Obviously, that doesn't automatically mean that they would have scored there - there's still that pesky poor second down success rate - but it definitely would have increased the chances for a more favorable outcome.
As for finding the reasons for the Rams struggles on first and second downs, you can pretty much point to the usual culprits: poor line play, playcalling, problems with the QB, lack of quality options at the skill positions, etc. The Rams have taken steps to address these factors, from upgrading the personnel on the line, installing a new offense, yada, yada, yada... Will it work? Stay tuned.