Ed Garvey, who as executive director of the National Football League Players Association led the players off the field and into the longest strike by professional athletes in the country's history, is not sure he wants to be running the union when it comes time to negotiate another contract with the league in 1987.

Garvey, who was the target both of intense criticism and praise during the 57-day strike ending Nov. 16, is the only executive director the NFLPA ever has had. Now, he says, he is thinking seriously of leaving the union. But he is not going to make up his mind until he's had some time off.

"What I have to do under the circumstances is get the hell away from here for a while," he said. "You can't go through an intense experience like this without some scar tissue developing."

Whatever his decision, Garvey insisted, it will be unaffected by calls within the union for his resignation.

In voting to ratify the Nov. 16 settlement, members of the San Francisco 49ers voted unanimously to seek Garvey's resignation. Bob Kuechenberg of the Miami Dolphins called repeatedly for Garvey's resignation during the strike and, last week, John Dutton of the Dallas Cowboys predicted Garvey's days with the union were numbered.

On Friday, it was reported that the San Diego Chargers have voted for Garvey's removal and for an independent audit of the union's dues fund. Bill Shields, the Chargers' player representative, was quoted as saying the vote was unanimous.

"We had a better contract on the table when we walked out than the one they agreed to," Dutton told United Press International.

Garvey insisted Dutton is simply unfamiliar with the details of the final settlement, which was not signed by representatives of the NFL and the union until Dec. 12. He said many of the calls for his resignation can be traced to an unsuccessful attempt by a group of dissident union player representatives to oust him in the summer of 1981.

It is undeniably true that the NFLPA failed to achieve its most widely publicized demand: that the NFL divert 55 percent of its gross annual income to a trust fund, which would pay players on a seniority-based scale with performance-incentive bonuses.

But it did win establishment of a modest wage scale, severance pay of up to $140,000 upon retirement, $60 million in bonuses for current players and a doubling of postseason playoff money. Perhaps even more importantly, the union won the right to negotiate individual contracts on behalf of veterans or to require NFLPA certification of agents who conduct such negotiations.

"For the first time," said Garvey, "the league is going to have to be involved on a day-to-day basis with the players association."

Under this provision of the agreement, players entering the NFL for the first time are permitted to use an agent of their choice without union certification. But subsequent negotiations must be approved by the NFLPA. What this means, said Garvey, is that any time a player becomes a free agent, the union becomes his bargaining representative.

Its treasury depleted by the strike, the NFLPA nevertheless is in a position to deal from strength with the league, Garvey insisted, mainly because of the solidarity it demonstrated during the strike and its emergence as a bona fide labor group with allies throughout the organized labor community. It showed it was capable of shutting down the NFL.

Initially, Garvey said, the union considered the NFL's threats to call off the season a bluff. "But toward the end we began to take it seriously," he said.

When the union finally did agree to settle, Garvey and other NFLPA leaders were widely criticized in the media for not getting more for the eight weeks the players had been on strike. But, Garvey insisted, the union got all it could, and others in the labor movement generally support that contention.

"The fact is they made some rather important gains," said William W. Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists. "On balance, they laid a solid foundation for the future."

What did hurt the NFLPA, said Winpisinger, were statements by its members in the final days of the strike urging settlement on management's terms.

"When support for his objectives began to erode, Garvey did what any self-respecting union representative would have done. He scrambled around and got the best possible deal he could get for his members," said Winpisinger. "I would have done the same thing . . .

"It's clear that the owners had no intention of splitting up their rather bountiful revenues. Because of their financial might, they prevailed. They starved out the players."

But Bill Olwell of the United Food and Commercial Workers said the football settlement "was typical of what is happening right now. There were no winners and no losers, just hard-fought compromises. Nobody thought the players would stick together, but everybody now knows the players will not roll over and fall dead."

Murray Seeger, director of information for the AFL-CIO, said, "I don't think there is much doubt that management tried to break the union and failed.

"It's hard for a small union like this to maintain solidarity in time of a strike. Almost everybody in the organized labor movement applauds them for their courage. They have done very well under very tough conditions."

Writing in The New York Times, A.H. Raskin, associate director of the National News Council and a former chief labor correspondent for that newspaper, compared the NFLPA's strike to the United Auto Workers' 113-day strike against General Motors just after World War II.

By the time that strike was settled, the union had dropped almost all of its demands and its members went back to work on terms that, essentially, were dictated by management. But the UAW's cohesiveness in that strike had a profound impact on its subsequent negotiations with GM, and Walter Reuther, the union vice president who led that strike, went on to become president of the union.

Garvey said he thinks the comparison is valid. "There are watershed events in the relationship between a union and an employer. This may have been one of them."

That won't be known, of course, until 1987 when the sides again attempt to negotiate a collective-bargaining agreement. One factor that separates the NFLPA from most other labor unions is its high turnover among members; with the average NFL playing career 4.2 years, most union members in 1987 will not have participated in the strike.

Garvey admitted that is a problem and said it requires the NFLPA to pay more attention to organizing. But, he said, the job insecurity built into the NFL system tends to make players turn to a union for protection.

Garvey has spent more than a decade with the NFLPA. He was recently out of the University of Wisconsin Law School when the players asked him to come to Washington to help get their union started, and he has spent most of his professional career working for it.

At 42, he acknowledged, the best time for him to make a career change is before this contract with the NFL expires. He said he's been thinking about getting into politics or moving to something else within the labor movement.

"I had a commitment to people who are very important to me personally to do everything in my power to build the union. I think that has happened. If I were to leave, I would feel I have lived up to my part of the bargain."