The NFL Players Association yesterday offered to compromise with management in the key areas of free agency and drug testing.

Gene Upshaw, the union's executive director, called this a "great step forward in the areas we feel could bring a fair and a fast conclusion" to negotiations, thus averting a strike by NFL players next week.

But hopes for a quick settlement seemed remote yesterday after the meeting at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill.

Management left the room without setting up further negotiations and Upshaw, at a news conference, said the odds of a strike on the Sept. 22 deadline "are increasingly getting higher." He also said: "We have a lot of work to do and it doesn't look very bright."

Negotiations apparently will not resume before tonight at the earliest. Jack Donlan, executive director of the NFL Management Council, declined comment yesterday, and management spokesman John Jones said Donlan would hold a news conference in New York at 3 p.m. today.

In Dallas, Cowboys President Tex Schramm said that, in the event of a strike, games scheduled for the third week of the season would be pushed back until the end of the season. Thus the owners, who voted to try to continue playing through a strike, would have almost two weeks to put together teams of free agents and any players who cross picket lines.

Under yesterday's union counterproposal to the owners' Sept. 7 offer, the NFLPA dropped its position for unrestricted free agency for all players.

The union suggested that management be given the right of first refusal for all players who have not completed four seasons in the league. Upshaw said such a rule would affect about half the league's 1,600 players.

Under the union plan, after four full seasons, any player who becomes a free agent would be able to sign with another team, with no right of first refusal or compensation. Under the current system, a free agent's new team has to pay high draft choices as compensation, or his original team can match the offer and keep him. Only one player has moved in that manner in 10 years.

Donlan has said repeatedly the owners would liberalize the current policy but not change its basic framework. According to Upshaw, Donlan said only five words during yesterday's 25-minute meeting: "I'll get back to you," before closing his briefcase and leaving the room.

In the area of drug testing -- management wants random testing -- the union countered with a plan that would continue the current plan of one mandatory preseason test, additional testing for reasonable cause as determined by an independent doctor, and adopt the National Basketball Association's policy on rehabilitation and penalties.

"The NBA has a great program," Upshaw said. "They have a great rehabilitation program and they have a program in which they ban players from the league. We're not afraid to take that step.

"We think it goes a long way to dealing with the problem. There has to be a penalty out there that is real, that the players know and that they understand what will happen if you continue to abuse drugs."

The league currently has no penalty for players who use drugs; in the past, Commissioner Pete Rozelle has suspended players who were prosecuted and convicted for drug offenses.

Upshaw denounced the entry-level wage scale for rookies and second-year players, a major feature of management's Sept. 7 offer by which the NFLPA says the owners would save $95 million during a three-year contract.

"What they're proposing is a two-tier wage system," Upshaw said. "A two-tier wage system would be disastrous to the veterans of the National Football League. That schedule for $70,000 for a second-year player and {with} the average up around $220,000, the veterans risk their opportunity to work."

"We predict that over the next few days they will put together the real bribe -- the bribe they will throw on the table to try and keep the players from striking," Upshaw said. "What they will do is put something out that is loaded with land mines exactly like this {Sept. 7} proposal. Once you go through there, you see all the traps they have. They say they want to combine severance and pension so the players have a better benefit.

"But they don't mention the owners are not putting any more money into the plan . . . We're not going to fall for it. They give you something in dollars and they take it away in language."

The union's counterproposal includes a minimum pay scale about 50 percent higher than the one offered by management. Under the NFLPA proposal, rookies would receive at least $90,000, and a player with 13 years experience or more would earn at least $320,000. Under management's last offer, rookies would receive $60,000, and a player with 15 years or more experience would get at least $200,000.

The NFLPA also offered compromises in player representative protection (eliminating no-cut contracts for them); guaranteed contracts (excluding rookies, affecting about 25 percent of the players); squad size (reducing their initial offer from 52 to 49; the owners are offering 47, an increase of two over the current limit); pension; severance; insurance; club discipline; offseason training, and moving the deadline for having grass playing surfaces in all outdoor stadiums.

"We feel we have gone a long way," Upshaw said. "We have been able to make steps towards management, but we expect management to make the same amount of steps in our direction."

One player who said he was dismayed by the bargaining process is Atlanta kicker Mick Luckhurst, the Falcons' player representative and a member of the NFLPA's executive committee.

"I came up here to get a first-hand look at the negotiating process," he said at the news conference at the Hyatt Regency. "Obviously I wasn't impressed. As I said earlier, Jack Donlan is paid not to negotiate and Gene Upshaw is paid to negotiate. Sadly, then, we have an impasse.

"Once again that happened today. It's an interesting proceeding to view as a player. Obviously, I play football for a living and that's what I do best. But it doesn't take a genius or a Harvard graduate to realize that right now this is going nowhere -- 25 minutes sitting in meetings and then {management representatives} getting up without saying anything and making a bold statement by the way they buckled their briefcases didn't do anything . . .

"I want to make my third paycheck," he said. "I want to play football. I don't want to go on strike. I have no intentions of going on strike. Sadly, it seems there's a schedule the owners have . . . and they're going to keep to that . . . whatever happens. Right now it seems like we're still in 1977; they haven't even accepted the fact we had some negotiations in 1982 and we made some agreements then. Right now I don't see where it's going."