Joe Morris, the littlest Giant, was balancing on a footstool in the dressing room at the Meadowlands this afternoon, reaching into the top of his locker, finally standing tall.

Counting the footstool, he stood about 7 feet 1, good enough to reach Manute Bol's nose. Not counting the footstool, he was 5 feet 7, which would put him at Doug Flutie's eyebrows.

Below him, 10 shoes covered the bottom of his locker. One of them, he pointed out, was the lonely right-footed Adidas he left at the New York 48 on the 65-yard touchdown run last week that put the Giants in the playoffs. They will meet San Francisco Sunday at 1 p.m.

Morris jumped to the floor, fully aware of the heights of his new-found fame as New York City's latest sports celebrity and the National Football League's touchdown leader with 21.

He is short and good, a combination not often found in this league. He also is good and popular, a combination found all the time in New York.

But he'd just rather be short, good -- and unknown.

"I could labor in obscurity as long as I got the job done," Morris said today before practice.

"Sometimes people say, 'Joe's gotta play well for us to win.' I understand that. But if I could just blend in, I'd be just as happy."

Watching game films, Morris has noticed opponents' linebackers occasionally standing on their tiptoes, trying to find him behind his offensive line. Sooner or later -- usually later -- they always see him.

In his fourth NFL season, Morris has blossomed. A second-round draft pick out of Syracuse in 1982, he gained a total of 703 yards in his first three years.

He gained 1,336 this year, a team record, including 202 bouncing, ricocheting, even shoeless yards and three touchdowns last week in the Giants' 28-10 victory over Pittsburgh to make the playoffs for the second season in a row.

It was the first time a running back had gained more than 200 yards against the Steelers since O.J. Simpson did it in 1975.

If anyone was looking for an answer to the question, "Why was Morris selected to the Pro Bowl?" here it was.

"Joe Morris has had a couple spectacular games, but I think he's been pretty consistent the last year and a half," said Giants Coach Bill Parcells. "The difference is he's got more things we're doing with him now. . . . We've just kind of expanded his repertoire, so to speak."

Morris has been a starter for only 24 games, dating to the Giants' 37-13 victory over the Washington Redskins here in 1984, when he scored three touchdowns. He won the job from Butch Woolfolk, who was drafted one round ahead of Morris in '82 but since has been traded to Houston.

It probably is long forgotten by now, but on the night Joe Theismann broke his leg, Morris scored three more touchdowns at RFK Stadium, all on traps that snared the Redskins. Twice, the trap caught defensive end Dexter Manley, who said he overran the play.

But the next Sunday, Morris was benched after he fumbled twice in the first quarter at St. Louis. That didn't last long. He went on to gain 542 yards and score 10 touchdowns in his final four games.

Perhaps his truest test comes Sunday, when the two 10-6 NFC wild-card teams play. The 49ers have gone nine games without allowing a rushing touchdown or a 100-yard game by a running back.

In those same nine weeks, Morris has averaged 111 yards per game and scored 18 touchdowns.

Something has to give. There are those who are figuring it won't be Morris.

Johnny Parker, the Giants' strength coach, is quoted around here as saying, "Never bet against a short man, because he's had to fight all his life."

When he was in the eighth grade, Morris, one of four football-playing sons of an Army master sergeant, loved basketball. He was 5 feet 4, and so were the other boys in his class. It worked nicely.

After summer vacation, when he went back to school for the ninth grade, things changed.

"That was the spurt," Morris said. "When we came back, everybody was 5-10 or 5-11. I was still 5-4. That's when I started thinking about football."

Morris, who weighs 195 pounds, spent the last offseason developing his leg strength.

In April, when he heard the Giants had drafted a running back, George Adams, in the first round, he took a day off. He felt so bad he couldn't make himself lift weights that day.

But he soon told himself it was just another challenge, and he kept right on working.

His low, powerful center of gravity is what makes him so hard to stop, especially on the Giants' sweeps and traps. He also sees holes better this year because he is wearing contact lenses.

The running game, once an afterthought to Phil Simms' passes, now has an identity, a hero and a new philosophy. It's no longer oriented to a fullback, but a halfback -- namely, Joe Morris.

He is sort of a Backroads Joe here, well-liked, but wishing the limelight would fall on someone else and he could just go on with his job, running with a football.

Said guard Chris Godfrey, one of his blockers: "You get as much satisfaction watching him gain ground as if you were gaining it yourself."