When he first fell to the floor after being struck on top of the head with an elbow, Terry Metcalf had one thought.

"Darryl Stingley," Metcalf said today. "That's all I could think of. Would I be like him?"

Metcalf was playing in a basketball game this spring when he went up for a rebound. An opponent's elbow struck him solidly, pushing down his neck. Metcalf never lost consciousness but he didn't have any feeling in his right arm and his legs were wobbly and weak, the result of a concussion.

Unlike Stingley, the ex-New England Patriot who remains paralyzed after a crushing tackle by Jack Tatum in 1978, Metcalf has made steady improvement. After tests with four doctors, he was cleared to begin working out at Redskin training camp.

But Metcalf knows he still isn't completely recovered. He is having problems running on the grass practice field and he is stumbling a bit on pass patterns. He is not moving with the bounce and quickness that has kept him employed for nine pro seasons.

The Redskins are watching him closely. Coach Joe Gibbs will allow Metcalf to work at his own pace, separated from his teammates, until everyone is satisfied he can resume full-scale workouts.

"Maybe the best way is to let him rehabilitate himself and gradually bring him back," Gibbs said. "I don't think he feels comfortable running right now. He doesn't look as comfortable or as quick as I've seen him before. But he doesn't look as bad as maybe he thinks he does. You can't blame him for being cautious."

Metcalf isn't frightened anymore, as he was at first, but he still is unnerved by the slight weakness in his right arm and by his unsteady running.

"I'm maybe two weeks away, something like that," he said. "The weakness in my arm is just about gone. But I don't feel right yet running. I think it has a lot to do with wearing cleats on the grass. I have been working out with flat shoes, not cleats, and it's a change I have to get used to.

"I know I don't want to go out there and feel like a pitiful fool. I feel clumsy right now, not smooth. It's probably best for me to slow down and get my confidence back in my footwork. I haven't got many years left and I don't want to blow my chances."

Metcalf will be 31 in September. Last year, he made the difficult transition from star to role player, from the No. 1 runner to special teams performer, from halfback to receiver. His once enormous ego is under control. Instead of fighting the changes, he accepted them. He emerged a team leader and a stabilizing element on a constantly fluctuating roster.

Gibbs, who pushed the Redskins last year to sign the former Cardinal standout after he was waived through the Canadian Football League, is certain Metcalf still can contribute. But, just as he did in 1981, Metcalf will have to convince other staff members that Gibbs' judgment is correct.

If Metcalf can't move as well as he did last year, he could have problems sticking. If younger rivals at both tight end and wide receiver improve greatly, they could beat him out.

But barring a noticeable physical breakdown, it will be difficult for Gibbs to release Metcalf. He is fascinated with Metcalf's versatility--he also can fill in at running back and on special teams--and with his leadership.

"Terry is an everywhere player," Gibbs said. "We can use him to plug in where we need him. To my mind, he is a key player, a total player."

Midway through last season, after two costly fumbles, Metcalf was a lost player. Little used at running back, it appeared he would be allowed to play out the season before being released. Instead, Gibbs moved him to wide receiver and then used him almost exclusively on third-down, long-yardage situations. In that latter role, Metcalf actually was playing as a second tight end, running patterns after going in motion.

Metcalf finished with 48 receptions for 595 yards, ranking him 24th in the National Football Conference. He also ran for 60 yards, returned kickoffs for 283 and punts for 15 to give him 953 total yards. If he had reached the 1,000-yard mark, the Redskins would have owed St. Louis a fourth- instead of a fifth-round draft choice as compensation.

"Considering my limited playing time, I guess I was satisfied with my production," Metcalf said, "although I would have liked to have done better. Maybe now that they don't have to worry about 1,000 yards, they'll let me play more.

"I'm comfortable now with what I'm doing. My ego has lessened and I'm adjusting to my age. When I first came in the league, I thought I was the baddest around. That's cooled down.

"Last year helped. I was used to playing all the time and suddenly I wasn't and it was a shock. But I've learned the full meaning of 'team.' You can't be a self-centered guy. Last year was the first time I had played special teams where I was blocking and not returning. It gave me a whole different outlook. I could pay back people for all the years I was the hittee instead of being the hitter. I saw how important my blocking role was."

For now, however, Metcalf has to be more concerned about himself, not the team.

"I'll be okay," he said. "For a while, I wasn't so sure. But the doctors wouldn't have allowed me out here unless it was safe. I've just got to be patient and give myself some time, that's all."