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Bleep you, Gene Steratore.

Raider Nation is furious with the guy who refereed their team’s 20-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, and so am I. Though we might be steamed for different reasons.

Oakland fans believe Steratore and his crew snatched victory from them at the Coliseum. The Raiders are now clinging to playoff hopes by bloody, cracking fingernails, whereas if the officials had fairly adjudicated the game, the team could be holding on with six or eight actual fingertips.

And yes, some of the officiating in that game was (sound of bird springing in and out of cuckoo clock). The Raiders were, and are, convinced that the Steratore gang botched several key calls. Questionable pass interference penalties against the home team … a Raiders touchdown taken away … a rare holding call on a defensive lineman … Michael Crabtree being ordered off the field by the NFL spotter though the wide receiver claimed he felt fine, then missing the crucial play on which quarterback Derek Carr scrambled and lost a fumble with 31 seconds left.

And of course, Steratore’s now-infamous note card, which has taken its place among the Declaration of Independence, the handwritten lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone,” Barack Obama’s birth certificate and other important documents in U.S. history.

The Raiders swore they could see a little space between the ball and the first-down stick after Dak Prescott’s quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 with about 5 minutes left, and you know the old saying: “If there’s space, you must erase” offensive possession. But when Steratore stuck the folded paper into that space, suddenly the gap had disappeared. He flashed a smile and signaled the first down, and the Cowboys proceeded to march to the game-deciding field goal.

None of it sat right with the Raiders or their fans.

“I saw it myself from the sideline. But I also saw plenty examples on Twitter,” coach Jack Del Rio said Monday. “The guy ran out there with the camera and put the camera right down on it, so the whole world got to see what it was. It’s not like we’re making something up. … So how you can look at that and then get up with a smirk? I don’t know, that’s hard to take.”

No question, this team has every right to feel it was cheated Sunday night. But that’s not my complaint. The real problem occurs when Raiderdom begins to see a pattern of conspiracy in NFL officiating. And Steratore’s crew has cracked open that door again.

Accusing NFL refs of anti-Raider bias is a hallowed Oakland tradition. I’m sure it predates the Immaculate Reception, but that was our Benghazi. I say “our” because I was a Raiders fan growing up, and Franco Harris’ game-winning touchdown catch in a 1972 playoff game is one of my earliest sports memories. I accepted it as doctrine that the Raiders were robbed that day. Only now, in a more objective role, can I watch the trajectory of that ricocheting football on video and find it obvious that Oakland safety Jack Tatum batted it.

After Rob Lytle’s disputed non-fumble in the 1977 AFC championship game and the Raiders’ legal battles against the NFL in the 1980s, it was easy to adopt an us-vs.-them mentality. So by the time the Tuck Rule Game happened in January of 2002, launching a dynasty in New England and snuffing a good thing in Oakland, Raider Nation knew the fix was in.

I covered this team full time from 2003-07, and part time through the rest of Al Davis’ dotage, and during that dark era, the Raiders and their fans were convinced that the officials had it in for them.

I can’t tell you how many Raiders players earnestly told me, or told a group of reporters, something along the lines of: “I never really believed it until I got here, but some of the calls I’ve seen this year, there’s no other way to explain it.”

There were numbers to feed the fire. From 2003 to 2011, the season during which Al Davis died, the Raiders led the league in penalties four times, finished second twice and were in the top 10 in all but one year. They were top-six in penalty yardage in seven of those nine seasons.

The evidence was clear. The refs’ No. 1 priority was to undermine the Raiders.

Also clear, but harder to internalize, was that the Raiders were horribly undisciplined throughout that era. They false started at the worst moments, held opposing receivers to compensate for lack of coverage skills, and lost their cool and drew 15-yard penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct when things began to unravel.

The conspiracy theories made everything worse. Instead of holding themselves accountable and addressing their poor fundamentals, the players — with Davis’ tacit blessing — found it easier to blame the officiating. It was a classic self-fulfilling prophecy, and many fans bought in wholeheartedly.

Sure, there were voices of reason. No game is truly decided by one call (or one play, for that matter), but the Tuck game was about as close as you can get to a heist. The Raiders had it won until Tom Brady’s obvious fumble was ruled an incomplete pass. But the losing coach in that game, Jon Gruden, refused to pin the defeat on referee Walt Coleman. He noted that the game was still tied when Charles Woodson knocked the ball from Brady’s hand. The Raiders had an even chance to win the game at that point, but it was the Patriots who made the plays in overtime.

Since Mark Davis, Al’s son, hired Reggie McKenzie as general manager in 2012, the team has normalized in many ways. Gone are Al’s unique approach talent evaluation, his renowned paranoia and the wacky chain of command that encouraged players to go straight to the owner with complaints, rather than their coaches.

You just don’t hear as much about The Conspiracy from these Raiders — even though the numbers haven’t changed all that much. Del Rio’s team finished third in penalties in 2015, led the league in penalties and yardage in 2016, and are in the top 10 in both categories this year. Del Rio gets ticked off at calls like any coach, but he doesn’t wrap them into a larger theory that makes NFL officials seem like the priests behind the Da Vinci Code.

And now Gene Steratore comes to town with that suspicious piece of paper in his back pocket and threatens to turn Raider Twitter into InfoWars. There was no pedophile ring operating from that pizza joint in DC, and NFL officials are not intentionally fabricating calls to hose the Raiders.

Steratore and his crew weren’t corrupt, just incompetent. And the Raiders will be much better off if they can remember the difference.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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