Before his second professional season, Terry Metcalf asked his coach at St. Louis, Don Coryell, if he could be moved from halfback to wide receiver.

"I just wasn't sure," Metcalf said yesterday, "about getting pounded every week by those big guys. I knew I could make it as a running back, but going out to wide receiver seemed like a good idea, too."

Eight years and two teams later, he has his wish.

Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs switched Metcalf to receiver this week and it could revive the former all-pro running back's career.

For the last three weeks, ever since his fumble against San Francisco led to a crushing 49er touchdown, Metcalf's role with the Redskins has diminished dramatically, negating an impressive start.

He hasn't carried the ball since that fumble and has played, in his estimation, "two plays last week and about four the week before."

Metcalf thinks he still possesses the quickness that made him a feared runner at St. Louis. But after weeks of agreeing with him, the Redskins obviously think differently. Even with Joe Washington and John Riggins playing well, Metcalf still would be at halfback if the staff thought he remained a game-breaking rusher.

The Redskins hope Metcalf can become a game breaker at wide receiver. That would take the pressure off Art Monk, who has been attracting extra defensive coverage as the season progresses.

"I won't say the move is permanent," Gibbs said. "We'll just have to see how Terry plays outside. He still can play halfback; I know that. But I'm convinced he can play outside receiver. What he always has done best in football is catch the ball (221 NFL career receptions).

"He's strong and quick and he gives us real running ability out there. He's the kind of guy who can turn little passes into big plays. You look around the league, at teams like Buffalo and Miami and the rest, and they've got guys outside who dart around and catch the ball and take off for long gainers."

And that is just what the Redskins believe they haven't been getting from Ricky Thompson, who has lost his starting spot in the Metcalf shuffle.

Thompson, who prides himself on running precise routes and making difficult leaping receptions, has caught three of Washington's six touchdown passes and has caught several long passes this season (he's averaging 16.6 yards per reception). But the Redskins seem to feel he hasn't the quickness to hold up as well as Metcalf and Virgil Seay, who has been the No. 3 receiver.

"Do we have the big-play guys at wide receiver?" Gibbs asked. "Well, we sure haven't shown that we have. We've had to work for just about everything we've gotten recently. We've got to make it easier for ourselves, instead of grinding out everything. We're looking to get results from more speed out there."

Seay, a 5-foot-7, 177-pound first-year player from Troy State, made the final cut because of his speed. He has been used infrequently, especially since Gibbs switched to his two-tight end offense, and has caught only three passes.

But until Metcalf learns the intricacies of his new position, Seay is the likely starter, at least for Sunday's game against New England in RFK Stadium. Gibbs, however, says he foresees Metcalf terrorizing secondaries.

"He's caught a lot of passes for us already this season (24, third on the team)," Gibbs said. "He's shown the ability to adjust to coverages on deep passes, which is really important to that position. Imagine trying to tackle a guy in the secondary who can run like he runs?

"We thought about doing this weeks ago, and then didn't when everyone got injured. But now that we are healthier at running back, we've made the decision to move him and we'll stay with it."

As far back as training camp, Metcalf was alerted to a possible switch. But he was more intent then on showing he still belonged in the NFL as a running back after three years in the Canadian Football League.

He's never really gotten the chance to prove his point. He carried the ball seven times against the Giants, the most he has carried in any game. And he's gained only 60 yards on 18 attempts while fumbling the ball away twice.

"The fumbles I'm sure had something to do with my lack of playing time," Metcalf said. "I still think I can run, but I really don't want to get into that. I'm just glad to move outside, because I think it will increase my playing time. I was getting itchy sitting around the last few weeks."

The more Metcalf, who just turned 30, has thought about the move, the more he is convinced "it could lengthen my career. Joe (Gibbs) says I'm a natural for it. Others have done it, so why can't I?"

Metcalf says he knows the receiver patterns, but he will have to concentrate on reading defenses from a new position while learning how to combat bump-and-run tactics from cornerbacks. He spent time after yesterday's practice with Lemar Parrish working on the latter problem.

"It's a learning process for me," Metcalf said. "The coaches said I did pretty well Wednesday and I felt I did better today. I'm not completely comfortable yet, but it's coming. I don't see why I won't like it out there."