For the past week, Redskin running back Terry Metcalf has told interviewers that this would be just another game for him, that he was just glad to be back in the National Football League, that he had no grudges against his former employers, the St. Louis Cardinals.

It wasn't the whole truth, however.

"I've been looking forward to this day for a long, long time," he said about the Redskins' 1 p.m. game (EDT, WDVM-TV-9) Sunday against the Cardinals. "It means an awful lot to me. I just didn't want anyone to think I was too excited about it.

"But I told (roommate) Art Monk he better get all the sleep he could Friday night because I probably would be so nervous Saturday night I'd keep him awake. I just don't want to get too fired up or it may hurt the way I play."

And the way Metcalf plays could have a major influence on the game's outcome.

With Joe Washington out with a sprained ankle, Metcalf will get his first start as a Redskin against a Cardinal team favored by four points. Coach Joe Gibbs says he is determined to get his running game untracked, which means Metcalf and fullback Wilbur Jackson, replacing injured John Riggins, should be used extensively.

Gibbs also thinks the Redskins (0-2), who have managed only 17 points, could wake up offensively if someone makes a spectacular play. "Just something that gives us an easy score, so we don't have to work so hard," Gibbs said.

When Metcalf was a Cardinal, he was one of the league's best big-play men, whether as a runner, pass receiver or kick returner. It's no coincidence he will be employed in all three areas Sunday.

"I'd love to bring back a kickoff all the way," he said, remembering some of his spectacular performances in Busch Stadium. "It would be sooooo sweet."

Although his name still appears frequently in the Cardinal record book, Metcalf last played in a St. Louis uniform four years ago. When the team refused to reward him with what he thought was a suitable contract, he bolted to the Canadian Football League, but not before a strained negotiating period that left scars.

"One reason I wanted to sign with Washington was because I knew they played St. Louis twice every year," Metcalf said. "The Cardinal organization is messed up; I'm not the only player they haven't treated right. Maybe that is why there are only 12 left from my last team."

Revenge, however, isn't Metcalf's only motivation in this game. He needs to find the answer to a nagging question: Is he still a first-rate NFL running back?

"I don't know, I really don't," said Metcalf, who has carried the ball eight times for 23 yards, caught seven passes for 74 and returned six kickoffs for a 23.8 average.

"Deep down, I think I'm as good as I was when I left St. Louis. But I haven't played enough yet to find out. But getting to start in this game means I will play a lot. Maybe it's fate or something, giving me this chance."

Metcalf also knows that Gibbs deserves much of the credit for this chance. Gibbs, who was Metcalf's backfield coach in St. Louis, convinced General Manager Bobby Beathard to sign the veteran halfback last spring even when CFL films appeared to indicate he had lost a half-step.

"Terry hasn't changed a bit in my mind," Gibbs said. "He's still a super guy. And I believe he's still a fine runner. He just hasn't had a chance to really show it. I think he's going to surprise people. We are fortunate to have him with Joe Washington sidelined."

This also is a nostalgic day for Gibbs, who was a key member of Don Coryell's staff during the Cardinals' mid-1970s resurgence. And the present St. Louis coach, Jim Hanifan, is a close friend and former coaching colleague.

"We never thought we would be coaching against each other like this, it seemed too remote," Gibbs said. "But I'm sure the Cardinals are really ready for this one. We've handled them pretty easily recently (the Redskins have won nine of the last 10) and they've lost two straight, like we have. They have to figure they can beat up on us, after the way we played against the Giants."

That loss last Sunday continues to haunt Gibbs. The Redskins were embarrassingly inconsistent, and the offense performed horribly. "I'm letting people down," he said. "I'm convinced everything we are doing is correct, but when we play like that, it sure doesn't look it. We've got to stop our turnovers (10), penalties (18) and get our running game going."

But the Redskins feel they could get better very quickly against the Cardinals, the first weak defensive team they've faced. Last year, quarterback Joe Theismann passed for 260 and 307 yards in Washington's two victories over St. Louis. And now the Cardinals have benched Roger Wehrli, their longtime star cornerback, although rookie linebacker E.J. Junior adds some strength.

Despite two losses, the Cardinals still are averaging 304 yards a game. Quarterback Jim Hart, who should start after recovering from a knee injury, will be working against a weakened Redskin defense that will be missing its best linebacker, Monte Coleman (shoulder). Linebacker Mel Kaufman has a sore knee and could be spelled by Kevin Turner.

St. Louis, whose offensive line is struggling, is sure to go after the Redskin front four with halfback Ottis Anderson, one of the league's premier runners. Washington tackle Perry Brooks has a sore neck and, if he can't play, end Karl Lorch will move inside and Mat Mendenhall will start at end.

"The Cardinals are healthy and ready to go," said Gibbs, who is starting Joe Jacoby at left guard four days after the rookie made the shift from tackle. "I just wish we weren't so nicked up. It's been tough keeping things on an even keel with the way everyone has been falling.

"If we could just get one win behind us, we'd be okay. I'm convinced we are better than we are playing, but we have to prove that."