PHILADELPHIA, SEPT. 24 -- Negotiations for a quick settlement of the three-day-old strike by professional football players appeared on the verge of collapse today as two team owners walked out of the talks and the National Football League called off this weekend's slate of games.

"We haven't accomplished anything in negotiations so far," said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. "Hopefully, we can reach an agreement but the time is not now."

Said Jack Donlan, executive director of the Management Council, the owners' bargaining arm, "There comes a time when the parties should pull back and reevaluate their respective bargaining positions. We're reaching that point."

The league's 28 owners and striking players appeared polarized on what owners say is the only issue preventing the signing of a new three-year contract: the players' desire for less restrictive free agency, which would enable them to move freely from team to team. The owners have refused to give up the current system that ties players' movement to compensation in the form of high-round selections in the annual college draft.

The meetings recessed this evening after 5 1/2 hours. They were scheduled to resume at 9:30 a.m. Friday, but both sides have indicated that they don't expect serious talks to take place then.

Donlan said it would take "six to eight weeks of hard bargaining" to complete a deal once the free agency issue is resolved.

Marvin Powell of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, president of the NFL Players Association, said the players are willing to move on free agency, but not until the owners reciprocate on six other unresolved major issues, including improved pensions and severance. "We want to negotiate, not give it away," Powell said.

Powell's mood, decidedly upbeat Wednesday, was downbeat today. Part of the reason for Powell's concern was the midday departure of Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm and Pittsburgh Steelers President Dan Rooney. They left the negotiating table about 1:30 p.m., hailed taxicabs and departed for Philadelphia International Airport. Schramm said discussions on free agency "had been exhausted" and he had to get back to Dallas to oversee the Cowboys' preparations for resuming the season Oct. 4 with replacement players.

"We really wish they could stay here to see this through to the end," Powell said of Schramm and Rooney, a key figure in settling a 57-day strike in 1982. "But you can't bargain with yourself. We just pray another opportunity is afforded us very soon."

Upshaw said Schramm told him the owners were the stewards of the game and players the transient workers. "That's like saying they're the ranchers, we're the cattle and they can get more cattle," Upshaw said.

Schramm, who is predicting a protracted strike, said the owners are not negotiating the other issues before free agency is resolved because "if free agency isn't going to be resolved, then we're not going to make progress toward a settlement."

On the issue of free agency, Donlan said, "We have an absolute difference of opinion . . . that issue appears to be at this time beyond the power of persuasion." Donlan said the owners might be willing to bend on the issue, but only in exchange for imposition of their desired wage scale for entry level players.

Powell said all seven remaining major issues are open to negotiation, and Brian Holloway, an NFLPA vice president also taking part in the negotiations, said free agency is not the most important issue to some players.

"I see the same pattern from the Management Council as in 1982 {when the players struck for 57 days}, and that is very early raising {of} the members' hopes, focusing everything on the NFL players executive committee and then dashing our hopes," Powell said. "It's a recurring pattern."

Upshaw said, "Management is really trying to divide the union, bust the union. There's no doubt about that. I've seen it, I've experienced it, and I see exactly what's going on."

The talk of a long strike -- and taking six to eight weeks to negotiate a complete deal -- is perceived by union officials as an attempt by management to frighten striking players into crossing picket lines and returning to work, perhaps while a contract is negotiated.

Management, sources said, is expecting the players to break ranks if the owners can successfully field replacement teams Oct. 4 and receive a $98 million television payment. Most teams have signed between 40 and 60 players and are working them out in preparation for resumption of play. If these games come about, they could severely damage the ability of the NFLPA to operate as a strong union.

Donlan said he expected the union to present "a West Coast proposal" on free agency. But Donlan said it never materialized.

Under this plan, supposedly formulated by Los Angeles Raiders managing general partner Al Davis, there would be no free agency for seven years, a team would have right of first refusal in years eight, nine and 10, and a player would have unrestricted free agency after 10 years.

Of the current 1,585 players, only 80 would be able to switch teams without restrictions and 183 more would be subject to right of first refusal.

But Schramm and Donlan dismissed such a proposition because it changed the basic framework of free agency: compensation and right of first refusal. "We feel we are compromising by liberalizing it," Donlan said of the current system. "They think compromise is changing the system. We feel we have compromised, but we're not getting rid of the system."

Under the Sept. 7 Management Council proposal, the scale for compensation and right of first refusal would be changed so 49 percent of current players could switch teams for a third-round draft choice or less, Donlan said.

Currently, he said, two No. 1 draft choices are required for more than half the NFL players to move. Under the Sept. 7 offer, "only a small percentage" would require first-round choices.

The two sides made their original contract offers April 20 and had 19 negotiating sessions before the two-day session here. But little was accomplished. Thus, negotiations are far behind schedule, which is why Donlan said it would take six to eight weeks to strike a deal.