NFL owners and players quietly held settlement talks in recent days, providing a measure of progress as the sides head into a critical court hearing Friday.

The settlement discussions led the judge overseeing player-owner mediation to cancel mediation meetings scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, hinting that recent discussions in another venue, without lawyers, proved worthy of at least continuing.

For fans who want to see the NFL get back to normal business, talk is more promising than a legal standoff, but it's unclear just how much progress has been made and whether these discussions will lead to a deal. There was no indication that an agreement might be imminent, though word of the talks did spark some optimism. Both sides have kept quiet, following a federal court's order to keep talks private.

After the meeting Thursday, federal Judge Arthur Boylan, who has led recent mediation, canceled the upcoming sessions. His order said "the Court has been engaged in confidential settlement discussions" involving the league and players.

Mention of a settlement is the first hint of movement since the lockout began March 11.

This week's meetings, which began just outside Chicago on Tuesday and continued Wednesday and Thursday, according to multiple reports, included NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, along with several player representatives, a handful of NFL owners, and Boylan.

"The parties met pursuant to court mediation. Owners and players were engaged in confidential discussions before Chief Magistrate Judge Boylan. The court has ordered continued confidentiality of the mediation sessions," the NFL and players association said in a joint statement.

The Chicago Tribune first reported the talks. No Eagles representatives were at the meetings.

The point of the gathering, one player told the Tribune, was "no lawyers."

While a court hearing Friday and subsequent ruling, expected in late June or early July, could firmly swing leverage to one side - probably the owners' - each party has some incentive to deal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit decides.

For the owners, an agreement would eliminate the risk that the players score an upset in court and get the lockout lifted.

Players, likely facing a court ruling that could leave the lockout in place and threaten their fall paychecks, have incentive to deal before the court decides and hands a firm win to ownership.

"Settlement" discussions could represent a concession to the players. If the sides settle the players' antitrust case, it could leave the resulting labor deal under court supervision, an arrangement that has helped players. A traditional collective bargaining agreement, on the other hand, would remove the courts from the equation. The owners have pressed for a typical CBA.

Since the lockout began, most of the action has revolved around legal maneuvering. Friday's hearing will be the most crucial yet. It will help determine whether an injunction to lift the lockout takes effect, giving the players a major win, or is thrown out, which would allow the owners to continue the work stoppage for the foreseeable future.

Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214, jtamari@phillynews.com, or @JonathanTamari on Twitter.