Gene Upshaw, executive director of the National Football League Players Association, said last night he expected the Washington Redskins regulars to return to work today amid reports that the 23-day-old players' strike is about to end.

But Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard and an NFL Management Council spokesman said last night the regular players would not be eligible to play against the Dallas Cowboys Monday night unless the strike is over.

As support for the strike continued to dwindle yesterday with the defection of at least 89 players -- bringing the total of union members who have crossed the picket lines to at least 235 -- leaders of the union sought an agreement to allow the rest of their members to return to their clubs.

Upshaw said that the union last night rejected management's latest counterproposal for the players to return to work without a new collective bargaining agreement. The obstacle is the extension of an expiration date for the 1982 collective bargaining agreement that expired in August.

By late yesterday afternoon, management sources were saying the only roadblock was the expiration date; the players want the agreement to extend through Feb. 1, 1988, and the owners are pushing for Aug. 31. The last management offer had a June 16 date, which Upshaw said the union rejected "because all the rights of the standard players contract would vest for another year, and we're not going to have that."

At the conclusion of a news conference, when he was asked about reports the Redskins planned to return to work today regardless of what the union does, Upshaw said, "I'm sure they are going back. I've heard they're going back."

In New York, Jim Conway, general counsel of the Management Council, said his office expected "a couple other teams" to return as full groups today and that as many as seven other teams may do so. None will be eligible to play this week unless the strike is over, he said.

Upshaw said that one or several teams returning en masse did not mean an end to the strike. "We will not get all the teams back until I give them the word that we have agreed on something," Upshaw said. "It would be awful to see one or some regular teams out there and not all of them."

Upshaw said unless an agreement was reached, the players union would never be able to negotiate another collective bargaining agreement because the 1982 document "would be in effect forever."

Neal Olkewicz, the Redskins' player representative, declined to comment last night. However, a team source said the Redskins had voted at a team meeting yesterday to go back this morning but, "We're going to meet in the morning to see what our direction is. There's a possibility that any decision made today could be changed in the morning."

"We are hoping they will be back," team owner Jack Kent Cooke said.

The league's 28 player representatives scheduled a conference call with Upshaw for 8 a.m. today.

The Redskins' team meeting was the club's second in less than 24 hours yesterday after the league-imposed 1 p.m. deadline for reporting to camp to be eligible for this week's games and a paycheck. The Redskins became the only one of 28 NFL teams without a regular player crossing the picket lines.

Earlier yesterday, two management sources said that Upshaw and Jack Donlan, executive director of the Management Council, had reached accord in two telephone conversations on four of the five points that would enable the two sides to reach an agreement on the players to return to work without a contract: Federal mediation, meaning the union has dropped its demand for binding arbitration on all unresolved issues other than the critical one of free agency. Financial protection of striking players. Details were unavailable, but on Tuesday the owners offered a two-game salary guarantee and the union wanted a roster freeze for the entire season. Protection of player representatives and union officers, agreed upon Tuesday. No retaliation against strikers, also agreed upon Tuesday.

Upshaw was unclear on this last night, saying several issues remained on the back-to-work proposal, including the choice of a meditator and the process of mediation. But he also said the expiration date for a contract extension was what was holding up an agreement.

Conway, the Management Council general counsel, said the August date was important because of the no-strike, no-lawsuit provisions of the collective bargaining agreement that expired Aug. 31. Conway said that the later expiration date "would insure that we can have an '88 season free from disruption and labor strife."

Conway said the owners were worried that, if the expiration date were Feb. 1, the union would file a lawsuit contending that since there was no collective bargaining agreement, the players whose personal services contracts expire that date would automatically become free agents, able to sign with any other team without compensation or right of first refusal, as the collective bargaining agreement has required for the past deacde.

"We would be willing to return to work but everything must expire Feb. 1," Upshaw said at a sidewalk news conference in front of his L Street offices. "We feel we must have this resolved by that date. Anything beyond Feb. 1 is an additional two years . . . and we're not going to have that."

If the union agreed to the latest management proposal, the union would not be able to file a lawsuit until February 1989 at the earliest, according to one union source.

The last two days of telephone negotiations between Upshaw and Donlan came after a Monday meeting of player representatives of the 28 teams in Chicago at which they decided to offer a back-to-work proposal calling for mediation, followed by binding arbitration. At that time, Upshaw said the players would be out "for the duration" if the owners didn't agree.

On Tuesday, the owners rejected two union proposals to end the walkout. The first would have required all unresolved issues to go to binding arbitration after six weeks of mediation. In the second, the union modified its position, asking that all issues except the critical one of free agency go through that process.

Approximately 30 issues remain, including all of the major ones such as free agency, pensions, severance pay, protection for the NFLPA's player representatives and drug testing.

Striking players have missed three paychecks as the league canceled the third week of its 16-week schedule and then used replacement players and nonstriking players for the past two weeks. If the replacement players play this week, they will be eligible for pension credits and a half-share of playoff money.

Leading yesterday's defections was all-pro linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who became the first New York Giant to break ranks as the total number of defections jumped to at least 227 of the 1,585 players covered by the NFLPA.

At least one team, the Los Angeles Raiders, has more than half its regular players in camp as the total reached 26 yesterday with nine more defections. Sixteen players reported back to the Cleveland Browns yesterday, 11 to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Both sides were claiming advantages from yesterday's return of such players as Seattle's Steve Largent, Cleveland's Ozzie Newsome, New England's Andre Tippett, Houston's Tony Zendejas and Pittsburgh's John Stallworth and Donnie Shell that brought the total of returning regular players to about 14 percent.

That number didn't include an additional 13 Los Angeles Rams, including star running back Eric Dickerson and quarterback Jim Everett, whom the club announced had indicated they would return but had been given the day off "to avoid a media circus," according to a team spokesman. If the report is true, the Rams would have 24 regulars in camp today.

The exact number of players who reported yesterday was in dispute. The Associated Press reported 89, but the Management Council listed 110, including the 13 Rams for a total of 261. The union said its count showed the total "considerably lower" than the Management Council total, but said it would not have a count until today, according to Doug Allen, NFLPA assistant executive director.

"Whatever the numbers are, they certainly aren't the wholesale defections that management was expecting," Allen said as the count easily surpassed the previous one-day high of 38.

In New York, Jones said, "It's a further indication in the face of the union's stiffest efforts to keep players from reporting, the highest number of players yet came through."

Taylor, the league's 1986 most valuable player who said he was losing almost "60 grand" a week by staying out, became the first Giant to cross his team's picket line in East Rutherford, N.J. He said he based his decision to return on the Giants' poor play and his financial situation.

"I wasn't going to sit back and watch the Giants lose and lose a lot of money," Taylor said. "I don't have many friends on this team, but the guys I consider my friends will be my friends when this is over. As for the rest of the team, we're a working family."

Defensive back Kevin Ross became the first Kansas City Chiefs regular to return. "This is not a favor to {Chiefs owner} Lamar Hunt," he said. "This is not a favor to {Chiefs Coach} Frank Gansz. This is a favor to Kevin Ross."

Other teams that saw their first defections were the Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Diego Chargers. The only other team without any active players in camp is the Chicago Bears, whose Votie Patterson, on injured reserve, crossed the line.

Quarterback Jeff Kemp returned to the Seattle Seahawks. His father, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), a 1988 Republican presidential candidate and former Buffalo Bills quarterback, helped organize the first American Football League players union in 1965 and served as its president.